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Eight of 10 Americans accused of kidnapping return to US

Eight of 10 Baptist missionaries arrested in Haiti on child kidnapping charges following January's earthquake have returned to the United States. The other two remain in custody pending an inquiry into an earlier trip to Haiti.


AFP - Eight of 10 American missionaries who faced child kidnapping charges in Haiti arrived here early Thursday after being freed by a Haitian judge and leaving the quake-devastated nation.

The Miami Herald newspaper reported that the group arrived at Miami International Airport shortly after midnight.

A Haitian judge freed the missionaries without bail on Wednesday -- though the charges were not dropped -- and they were whisked to the airport in a van bearing diplomatic plates to board a US military transport plane for Miami.

One of the Americans smiled and waved as he got into the van along with his colleagues, and they were driven out of the compound where they had been held since their arrest on January 29.

Others in the group looked worn and shaken.

Witnesses saw their plane leave Port-au-Prince airport late Wednesday, and the US State Department later confirmed the eight had departed for the United States.

The emotionally charged case has dragged on for 19 days, drawing the attention of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and overshadowing the critical relief effort after a devastating earthquake on January 12 left more than 217,000 people dead and over a million homeless.

Haitian Secretary of State for Public Security Claudy Gassant delivered the release order to the Americans while they stood behind bars.

Judge Bernard Saint-Vil, who is handling the case, allowed them to leave the country without bail, according to their lawyer Aviol Fleurant.

Two other missionaries -- group leader Laura Silsby and Charisa Coulter -- remained in detention in Port-au-Prince because Saint-Vil wants to determine their motives for an earlier trip to Haiti before the quake, Fleurant said.

According to Fleurant, they had previously visited Haiti to help out at an orphanage in the country's northeast, though he could not provide more details.

He earlier told AFP that Coulter had become sick in jail and was being treated for an unspecified illness. She is reportedly a diabetic.

The two Americans were expected to be further questioned by the judge on Thursday.

Relatives of the freed missionaries expressed relief at their release.

"It's been awful but we entrusted in God that it would happen," Phyllis Allison, the mother of group member Jim Allen, told CNN.

Allison said her son traveled to the impoverished country to help people rebuild after the disaster.

"He just wanted to help them," she said.

Allen's Haitian lawyer, Louis Gary Lissade, a former Haitian justice minister, said the charges against the eight had not yet been dropped, although he expressed confidence that would happen soon.

Gassant stressed that the release does not prove the eight are guilty or innocent, and they should be prepared to return to Haiti as the investigation continues.

"The release such as the one today is not a definitive decision. They should remain available for presentation before the judge," he said.

Fleurant said Silsby has an orphanage in the neighboring Dominican Republic.

The US nationals, Baptist missionaries belonging to the New Life Children's Refuge, were caught trying to take a busload of 33 supposed orphans across the border to the Dominican Republic without authorization.

After it emerged that some of the children had parents, the Americans' lawyers have sought to portray the Baptists as acting selflessly to help during Haiti's catastrophe.

Some parents told the judge they willingly handed over the children because they could no longer care for them following the devastating quake that destroyed much of the Haitian capital.

Fleurant earlier expressed concern that judge Saint-Vil may want to question his clients to determine their relationship with their former legal adviser, Jorge Puello.

Police in El Salvador are investigating Puello for his alleged involvement in a sex trafficking ring, although he has denied the allegations against him.

Puello says he had no contact with the Americans prior to their arrest.

After Wednesday's ruling by the judge, the US State Department said Washington "respects the sovereign right of the government of Haiti to conduct its own judicial processes."

"Haitian authorities have been cooperative in ensuring the individuals' safety and welfare since their arrest and we have every expectation this will continue," it said.

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