N'DJAMENA, Chad - Six French aid workers accused of trying to kidnap dozens of African children denied wrongdoing yesterday as their trial began, with the head of the group insisting they were doing their best to help young war victims seek asylum in France.
Meanwhile, a journalist who had accompanied the Zoe's Ark mission told French radio the workers had been secretive while in Chad about plans to take the children to France.
The head of French charity Zoe's Ark, Eric Breteau, called the kidnap charges "fantasies" and insisted in court that "we acted in good faith and we only wanted to bring help to these young victims of war and in the end obtain asylum for them in France."
Breteau and five other French citizens who work for Zoe's Ark face up to 20 years in prison with hard labor if they are found guilty of trying to kidnap 103 African children in October.
Yesterday, Breteau insisted that both French and Chadian authorities were informed in writing about the group's intentions. The French government has previously said it warned the charity that its actions could break local laws.
The aid workers claimed the children had been orphaned by the conflict in the neighboring Sudanese region of Darfur, and arranged for French families to care for them.
In court, Breteau said the children were presented to the aid agency with documentation proving their status as Sudanese orphans. But subsequent investigations revealed that most of the children, between the ages of 1 and 10, were Chadians with living parents or adults they regarded as parents.
Defense lawyer Gilbert Collard said that the accused, "did not come here to do harm, but to apply the legal doctrine of saving lives at any price. They admit that they did not follow the usual methods of humanitarian aid."
The aid workers began a hunger strike this month to draw attention to the case, saying they feel abandoned by the French government.
The parents of many of the children say that they were told their children would be going to school in Chad, and that there was no mention of a trip to France.
In France, Marie-Agnes Peleran, one of three French journalists who had come to Chad to report on the Zoe's Ark mission, told France-Inter radio it was "never" said in Chad that the children were going to be taken to France, because "for security reasons, according to Eric Breteau, we couldn't say. Being in the border region, there were Sudanese security agents around."
Instead, she said, Zoe's Ark workers spoke of caring for the children for a certain period, giving them an education, and taking them to the main eastern Chad town of Abeche or N'Djamena, Chad's national capital.
Some of the children have since said they were lured away from their families with sweets. The aid workers also reportedly applied fake blood and bandages to the children, although none of them had been wounded, in preparation for a flight to France.
Chadian police stopped their convoy of all-terrain vehicles on its way to the airport with the children on Oct. 25, and the six have been jailed since then in a case that has drawn wide attention, sparked anti-French demonstrations here and created diplomatic tensions between Chad and France.
In Paris, Jean-Marie Bockel, a junior minister for relations with French-speaking nations, told France's LCI television that the French and Chadian presidents were discussing the case with the aim of bringing the six to France quickly following the trial.
A France-Chad agreement allows for citizens of one country convicted in the other to serve sentences at home. Chadian officials, however, have argued that the agreement only applies in cases where it is not clear where an offense was committed, so the Zoe's Ark defendants are not eligible.
The case has also inflamed tensions in Chad, which already hosts several hundred French troops backing the government, which is fighting rebels in the east of the country that Chad says are supported by the Sudanese government. The number of French soldiers will increase this January as a part of an European Union peacekeeping force along Darfur's borders.
Three Chadians and one Sudanese refugee have also been charged with conspiracy.