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French journalists accused in Chad child row return home

  • Story Highlights
  • NEW: French president returns to France with three released journalists
  • Journalists are among seven Europeans freed Sunday in child "kidnap" row
  • There are still 14 other people in custody in Chad
  • Father: "They never said they would take away our children"
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PARIS, France (CNN) -- Three French journalists charged in an alleged plot to kidnap African children for adoption in Europe arrived in Paris on Sunday, hours after French President Nicolas Sarkozy held emergency talks in Chad.

But 14 other people remained in custody in the African nation, some facing serious charges that could send them to jail for up to 20 years.

The journalists were among seven Europeans a Chadian judge released Sunday, including a Spanish flight crew, whom Sarkozy dropped off in a brief stop in Madrid on his way back from Chad.

All were arrested last week after workers from Zoe's Ark -- a French-based charity group -- were accused of trying to fly 103 children out of Chad in a kidnapping and adoption operation. Video Watch a report on how the events unfolded »

Some of the children may never return to their families because it is too difficult to determine their backgrounds, Red Cross spokeswoman Inah Kaloga told CNN on Friday.

Those who remain under arrest in Chad are six members of the French charity, four Chadians and four remaining members of the flight crew. Some face kidnapping and fraud charges.

Zoe's Ark leader Eric Breteau testified Saturday to a court in the Chadian capital that the three journalists and the flight crew of seven Spaniards and a Belgian were not involved in the alleged plot, court witnesses told CNN.

At least some of the flight crew are scheduled to testify before a judge on Monday.

The three journalists initially had been charged with complicity in the alleged kidnapping attempt. It's not clear if the charges against them have been dropped. Video Watch the freed Europeans leave Chad »

In a joint news conference with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero on Sunday at Madrid's Torrejon Air Force Base, Sarkozy expressed satisfaction that some of those detained had been released.

At the same time, however, he told reporters, "We should respect the sovereignty of Chad."

Zapatero thanked Sarkozy for dropping the four Spanish flight crew members off in their home country, and thanked Chadian President Idriss Deby for allowing them to return.

After his emergency talks in Chad, Sarkozy stressed the scandal would not affect the strong relations between the two countries or affect the planned deployment of a European force to protect refugees from Sudan's Darfur region who have fled to Chad and the neighboring Central African Republic.

Sarkozy also said he hoped the six remaining French nationals -- all from Zoe's Ark -- would face trial in France.

The charity says that the children were orphans from the Darfur region -- where the United Nations estimates 200,000 people have been killed in four years of conflict -- and that the group was taking them to host families in France.

But after preliminary interviews with the children, aid agencies said Thursday it appeared most of them probably are not orphans and not from Sudan, but instead come from villages on the Chadian side of the border with Sudan.

The children are staying in an Abeche orphanage while aid agencies and government officials try to find out where they came from -- a challenge hindered by the number of children, their youth, and the volatile situation in the region.

A father of three of the children allegedly kidnapped told a French newspaper he put his children into the charity's care after he was told they would be educated at a school under construction in a nearby town.


The Chadian man, who gave his name as Arbab, told Le Parisien on Sunday that workers from Zoe's Ark had visited his village three times.

"They never said they would take away our children," he told the newspaper. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Nic Robertson and Al Goodman contributed to this report.

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