Children taken by French charity go back home
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The 103 African children, mainly from Chad, have been staying at an orphanage in Abeche ever since the French charity Zoe's Ark tried to take them to France, claiming they were Darfur refugees.
Chad and UNICEF began Friday to send home 103 African children that a French charity had sought to fly to France in October for adoption, authorities said.
"UNICEF has committed itself to monitor these children in their respective families," Mariam Ndiaye, UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) representative for Chad, said as the youngsters began their journey home.
Eighty-three children were the first to leave an orphanage in Abeche, eastern Chad on Friday in two buses headed 150 kilometers (95 miles) east to Adre where family members were waiting for them.
The 103 children -- almost all of whom are from Chad -- had been staying at the orphanage ever since the scandal involving the Zoe's Ark charity, which claimed that they were Darfur refugees.
The charity's head Eric Breteau and five colleagues were sentenced in December to eight years hard labour by a Chad court for the attempted airlift last year, before being sent to France to serve their sentence in jail.
Five Sudanese children and one child authorities are still attempting to identify will be temporarily placed in the care of the Red Cross.
"The parents were abused and false promises were made," Chad's Social Action Minister Ngarmbatina Carmel Sou IV said as the 81 boys and 22 girls aged one to 11 years prepared to go home.
"For the Chadian government, it's been an occasion to find out how many children are abandoned with no schooling," she added. The villages around Adre are isolated and very poor.
During the trial in Ndjamena in December, parents accused Zoe's Ark staff of promising to send their children to school, with no mention of taking them out of Chad, but the charity passed on the blame to local go-betweens.
The Chadian minister insisted that the damages and interest of 6.3 million euros (9.8 million dollars) the court ordered the charity to pay on December 26 mattered as a "judicial decision that must be respected".
Last Friday, Paris welcomed the Chadian president's plans to pardon the six charity workers convicted of "attempted kidnapping", but refused to pay the money owed the families.
"It is not for the government to pay, but at the same time, a solution must be found," said Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner.
Chadian President Idriss Deby Itno, who has previously said he would grant a pardon to the aid workers, last Thursday told France 24 news channel that this would come in "less than a month."
But the president, who was supported by France when rebels attacked the Chadian capital last month, said "a solution" still had to be found regarding the compensation for the children's families.
The aid workers were detained on October 25 last year as they were about to put the children on a flight from Abeche to France. They said they believed the children were orphans from Darfur, across the border in Sudan.
But international aid staff later found almost all the children to be Chadian and to have at least one living parent.
"After more than four months in an orphanage, I fear that once the children are back with their families, they will find life rather disagreeable," one aid worker told AFP.
The case raised tensions between France and Chad, a former French colony, as Paris prepared to spearhead a 3,700-strong EU peacekeeping force in eastern Chad to protect refugee camps in the region bordering Darfur.
A vanguard of the 14-nation mission has begun deployment in Chad and the neighbouring Central African Republic.
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