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Child abduction suspects in court

  • Story Highlights
  • Suspects in alleged child abductions go before Chad judge
  • Aid organization warns it will be difficult to reunite children with families
  • Most are not from Sudan and have families, agencies say
  • Six members of Zoe's Ark, 15 others under arrest in Chad
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N'DJAMENA, Chad (CNN) -- Eleven of those accused in an alleged international kidnapping of African children were brought to court Saturday in the Chadian capital, appearing somber as they were led into a courthouse under armed guard.

The pre-trial hearing was conducted amid tight security as the accused made their first appearance at the Chadian Supreme Court.

Eric Breteau, leader of Zoe's Ark, the French charity at the center of the case, was among those attending court. Also appearing were four Spanish flight attendants, still wearing their red flight uniforms, who were part of a plane crew involved in the alleged kidnap attempt.

A total of 21 people -- 17 Europeans and four Chadians -- were arrested in the eastern city of Abeche, close to the border with Sudan's war-torn Darfur region, last week as they attempted to load 103 children onto a plane to fly them to Paris.

They were flown to N'Djamena Friday after the case was transferred there, a spokesman for Chad's government said.

Zoe's Ark has said the children were orphans from Darfur and the group was taking them to host families in France. However, aid agencies have said most of the children are probably not orphans and not from Sudan, but instead come from villages in Chad.

Wearing blue caps, military police called "Quick! Quick!" and "Let's go!" as they led the 11 people from the rear of a van on the grounds of the courthouse Saturday. At the gates of the court compound, a handful of Chadians gathered to watch.

However, there were no details of what was being discussed at Saturday's private hearing.

During a break in the proceedings, Breteau appeared downcast as he made a trip to the bathroom. He refused to answer journalists' questions and was later seen smoking a cigarette at a courthouse window.

Six Zoe's Ark members have already been charged with kidnapping. Three French journalists who were on the trip and a flight crew of seven Spaniards and a Belgian are charged with complicity, along with the four Chadians.

The children are staying in an Abeche orphanage while aid agencies and government officials try to figure out where they came from, but the agencies have said the investigation is challenging because of the number of children, their young ages, and the volatile situation in the region. Red Cross spokeswoman Inah Kaloga told CNN Friday that some of the children may never return to their families because it is too difficult to determine their backgrounds.

Chad's president has expressed hope that the journalists and flight crew can be released, and a jurisdictional shift in the case, as happened Friday, gives the president the legal opportunity to intervene on their behalf, according to the president's chief of staff, Mahamat Hissene.

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The Spanish government sent an ambassador to Chad to press for the flight crew's release, and the international press freedom group Reporters Without Borders said it will ask for charges against the journalists to be dropped. Attorneys for the charity workers have said their clients are innocent.

In a joint statement issued Thursday, the Red Cross, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and UNICEF said most of the children were living with their families and at least one parent before Zoe's Ark took them to Abeche. The UNHCR has said the oldest child in the group is around 10, and most are between 3 and 5. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN Correspondent Nic Robertson Sultoon contributed to this report

Copyright 2007 CNN. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Associated Press contributed to this report.

All About ChadFranceDarfurUnited Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

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