Thousands of Chadians demonstrate against a French charity which plotted to kidnap African children to sale in Europe.
Originally uploaded by Pan-African News Wire File Photos
The case has sparked anti-French protests in Chad
Six French nationals accused of trying to kidnap 103 children have gone on trial in the Chad capital, N'Djamena.
The staff from the Zoe's Ark charity held hands as they arrived at court. They say the children were orphans from Darfur who were being taken to France.
Their leader testified the operation had the support of the French and Chadian governments and the UN.
The six, who have gone on hunger strike, could face 20-year hard labour terms if found guilty.
The French government has appealed for leniency.
The court will try to establish whether the children were the beneficiaries of a humanitarian project that went wrong, or the victims of child-trafficking.
The BBC's John James in N'Djamena says the leader of the six, Eric Breteau, looked gaunt but composed in court.
"I dispute the charges I am accused of. I intend to respond point by point," he told the packed courtroom.
Tight security as trial starts
"Nobody ever expressed even the tiniest doubt about the Sudanese origins of the children present at our bases," Mr Breteau told the court, apparently in response to accusations that the children were not really from Darfur.
He said the operation had been kept secret from local authorities in Chad "in order not to put the mission in danger ... and so as not to alert the suspicions of the Sudanese secret service," Mr Breteau said, quoted by the AFP news agency.
"Before the operation was launched... all the French authorities were informed in writing of our action," he added.
The governments of France and Chad have denied any knowledge of the operation.
The accused chatted to each other during breaks in proceedings but otherwise followed closely.
The court was surrounded by anti-riot police, armed with machine-guns.
The courtroom was packed, included many journalists from the French media. Outside, there was a crowd of about 100 people.
The case has sparked protests in oil-producing Chad amid claims the accused might benefit from special treatment because they are Europeans.
"Our clients will tell the truth, that they came here to do good," said Mario Stasi, lawyer for the charity's nurse, Nadia Merimi.
The six were stopped by officials as they went to catch a flight from Chad to France in late October with the children.
Most of the children have been found to have at least one living parent or guardian.
'Fight to the end'
The judge will want to know why, when none of the children was injured, they were bandaged and caked in fake blood ahead of their flight.
One of the accused, Emilie Lelouche, told France Info radio on Thursday: "We're going to fight to the end."
The aid workers have been on a hunger strike since earlier this month, refusing food but drinking water, and have accused the French government of deserting them.
On Thursday, French Junior Foreign Minister Rama Yade said the government had appealed to Chad to treat the accused with a "certain clemency".
French Justice Minister Rachida Dati said this week that if convicted the six might be able to serve their sentences in France because of a bilateral judicial agreement.
Analysts have speculated a diplomatic deal could be struck after French President Nicolas Sarkozy met Chadian President Idriss Deby last week in Lisbon during a European and African leaders' summit.
But an unnamed Chad government official told Reuters news agency: "Have you ever seen an African sent back home after committing a crime as serious as the one [allegedly] committed by the members of Zoe's Ark?"
Three Chadians and one Sudanese refugee are also on trial for conspiracy.
In all, 17 Europeans were arrested in the eastern Chadian town of Abeche on 25 October but 11 others - three French journalists, seven Spanish flight crew and a Belgian pilot - have since been repatriated.
Chad kidnap accused 'were duped'
The case has sparked anti-French protests in Chad
One of six French aid workers charged in Chad with abducting children has told a court they were duped to believe the youngsters were Darfur war orphans.
Local intermediaries had assured the Zoe's Ark aid workers the children were from Darfur, Emilie Lelouch claimed.
But a Sudanese co-defendant criticised the French workers, saying the six had concealed plans to take the youngsters back to France.
They deny wrongdoing, and could face 20 years' hard labour if convicted.
Ms Lelouch told the second day of the trial on Saturday in Chad's capital, N'Djamena, that the operation was aimed at evacuating war orphans from the troubled Sudanese region of Darfur.
"I never had any doubt whatsoever about [the children's] Sudanese origins," she was quoted as saying by Associated Press news agency.
Tight security as trial starts
Three Chadians and a Sudanese man are also charged with fraud and abduction after officials stopped a convoy on 25 October carrying 103 children that the charity were planning to fly to France.
Investigators found out most of the children were Chadians who lived with at least one parent or close relative.
The families have told police that they were not told their children were about to be taken abroad.
They have claimed that the aid workers misled them into believing the youngsters would be offered temporary local school places.
Ms Lelouch and another Zoe's Ark member, Nadia Merimi Aubry, denied this.
But the families' account has been confirmed by a journalist who accompanied the aid workers.
The claims by the charity's staff were also contradicted by fellow accused, Souleimane Ibrahim Adam, who denies helping kidnap 63 of the children.
He told the court: "[The aid workers] tricked me. They told me [the children] were going to remain. Had I known it was to take the children elsewhere, I wouldn't have agreed."
More than a week ago, the aid workers began a hunger strike in protest at their treatment.
The case has sparked protests in the oil-producing former French colony amid claims the charity workers might benefit from special treatment because they are Europeans.
Analysts have speculated a diplomatic deal could be struck to allow the French to return home after the verdict.
Should the New International Force Be 'Neutral' Or 'Impartial'?
UN Integrated Regional Information Networks
24 December 2007
A new European Union force and UN mission set to deploy in Chad are mandated to protect aid groups assisting hundreds of thousands of people, amid violence by armed bandits, militias, rebels, soldiers and some foreign fighters. But humanitarian officials in Chad are concerned that if the mission does not remain distinct and separate from relief efforts it risks undermining them.
"Understanding the distinction between the terms 'neutrality' and 'impartiality' is particularly crucial in this type of conflict," the head of the International Committee for the Red Cross in Chad, Thomas Merkelbach, told IRIN. Aid officials are airing their concerns in meetings with military advance teams.
Merkelbach said he was struck by how some of the officials he talked with in the European Union force (EUFOR) and the UN mission for the Central African Republic and Chad (MINURCAT) did not seem to appreciate the difference.
"I keep hearing officials using the terms interchangeably," Merkelbach said, adding that the success or failure of the mission could hinge on officials' ability to discern between the two and act accordingly.
Neutrality is above all a political concept, he said. As stated in the Red Cross movement statutes neutrality is "to endeavour not take sides in hostilities or engage at any time in controversies of a political, racial, religious or ideological nature."
Impartiality, on the other hand, refers to the delivery of humanitarian assistance. Its aim, according to the Red Cross statutes, is "to relieve the suffering of individuals, being guided solely by their needs, and to give priority to the most urgent cases of distress."
The mandate of the international military force coming to Chad is not to 'relieve suffering' but to provide protection to humanitarian aid groups so that they can provide the relief more effectively.
Yet Merkelbach and many humanitarian officials IRIN spoke with in Chad said they are concerned that key officials do not understand why it is important to make the distinction.
"Our fear is that we will be associated with EUFOR," the country head of International Rescue Committee (IRC) Jef Imans told IRIN.
"If some armed groups do not perceive the international force as neutral and those armed groups associate the international force with international humanitarian operations then we may become targets," he said.
There are reasons armed groups may not perceive EUFOR as neutral. The UN resolution gives it the right to use force in some circumstances, in accordance with Chapter VII of the UN charter. (MINURCAT is a police training and monitoring mission and does not include armed troops.) But more importantly, many of the more than 3,500 troops expected to make up EUFOR will be transferred from a contingent of French troops already based in the former French colony.
The French army told IRIN that it is providing support to the Chadian army "indirectly". Various rebel groups have also declared war on France.
If EUFOR were to engage rebels it too would be likely to be perceived as pro-government, the programme coordinator of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Philippe Verstraeten told IRIN. "And if the rebels then associate EUFOR with the international humanitarians in eastern Chad then it could much become harder and more dangerous for us to operate".
Humanitarians fear that they will no longer be accepted by the very people they seek to help, ICRC communications coordinator in Chad Inah Kaloga told IRIN.
That risk - of EUFOR being viewed as neither neutral nor impartial - is why aid workers say it is particularly important that EUFOR refrain from mixing security operations with humanitarian relief.
"That is why we are so insistent on this distinction between what the international military forces do and what we humanitarians do," Kaloga said.
Several aid officials said that the international military officials they have talked with in Chad have not always understood why. The international military forces often have better logistical support by which to provide water and food to civilians, the IRC representative said. "They may also be eager to do it to win hearts and minds of locals so they are not perceived as enemies."
EUFOR made it clear to IRIN that it has no intention of blurring the lines between their security operations and the assistance being given by aid groups.
"We might need to have an airstrip or bridge built for logistical reasons which humanitarians may also end up using," EUFOR's head of public information Lieutenant-Colonel Patrick Poulain told IRIN. "But our mandate is to provide security and if we succeed at that then that's all the hearts and minds we need to get the population on our side."
Still there may be times when the international military are compelled to provide humanitarian assistance, ICRC's Kaloga said. "Imagine if a EUFOR military patrol comes across civilians and combatants who have been wounded on the battlefield and who urgently need medical attention," she said.
In moments like that the international force should be compelled to undertake humanitarian action, Kaloga said. "It must act to 'relieve the suffering' of the injured and do so impartially no matter from what side the injured come from," she said.
The larger problem Kaloga points to is that there is always a political dimension to a military mission. "The mission may be led into debate which requires political choices," she said. "This could make the mission neither neutral nor impartial and we humanitarian groups run the risk of also being politicised if we are too closely associated."
Neither 'neutrality' nor 'impartiality' is mentioned in UN Security Council and EU Parliament resolution authorising EUFOR while for ICRC neutrality and impartiality are central to its mandate. "For us they are not just abstract ideas," Kaloga said, "They are active principles that we apply as a means to an end."
This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the Pan-African News Wire
UN Fund Set Up to Help Protect Refugees in Chad, Central African Republic
UN News Service (New York)
24 December 2007
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has set up a trust fund to help the Governments of Chad and Central African Republic (CAR) build the law and order capacity needed to ensure the security of hundreds of thousands of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) endangered by the spill over of violence from Sudan's war-torn Darfur region.
The Fund, supporting the UN Mission in the Central African Republic and Chad (MINURCAT), has already received $2.2 million from the Government of Japan, $1 million from the Government of Norway and -250,000 from the Government of Belgium, Mr. Ban's spokesperson announced today in a statement.
Discussions are advanced with the European Commission for a contribution of -10 million.
"The Secretary-General appreciates these generous donations and would like to use this opportunity to invite all interested donors to support MINURCAT's mandate through a contribution to the United Nations Trust Fund," the statement said.
MINURCAT, for which the UN General Assembly has already authorized $182 million, was set up by the Security Council in September as a multidimensional presence including European Union military forces and comprising 300 police and 50 military liaison officers, as well as civilian staff, focusing on the areas of civil affairs, human rights, the rule of law and mission support.
More than 400,000 refugees and IDPs have been driven from their homes by fighting and insecurity in the two countries and neighbouring Sudan, and an estimated 700,000 others in host communities have also been affected.