PARIS - The president of Chad said Friday that nine French citizens associated with a charity who were arrested Thursday for trying to fly 103 children from Darfur to France faced punishment for their "horrible act".
A leader of the charity said relocating the children was a humanitarian effort undertaken to "save them from death".
The Chadian president, Idriss Deby, said during a visit to a social centre in Abeche, Chad, where the children are being cared for: "It is a horrible act which I say is a crime. I strongly condemn it."
Seven Spaniards, crew members of the plane chartered by the organization, were also detained by the Chadian government.
The charity, l'Arche de Zoe, or Zoe's Ark, a three-year-old French nonprofit organization that aims to help orphans, said it had taken the children from Sudan to neighboring Chad and was planning to fly them to France, where it had lined up host families that had paid nearly R23000 a child.
The group said the children, aged 1 to 9, were orphans from the western Darfur region in Sudan. It said the operation had the support of President Nicolas Sarkozy and his former wife, Cecilia, an assertion Sarkozy's office denied.
David Martinon, the president's spokesman, said: "I formally reject the information according to which the organization Zoe's Ark claims the support of the Elysee and Cecilia Sarkozy. It's totally false."
Rama Yade, France's junior minister for human rights, condemned the operation as "illegal and irresponsible".
The French Foreign Ministry said a Paris court had opened a criminal investigation into the matter.
Yade was contacted by the charity three months ago, seeking support for its Children Rescue programme, Sarkozy's spokesman said. But after several aid agencies in Darfur advised against responding to the appeal to take in Darfur orphans, the human rights ministry urged French families not to participate. Adoption is illegal in Sudan and Chad.
Stephanie Lefebvre, secretary general of the charity, said the families, who had been waiting for the children at an airport about 100 miles east of Paris, had not planned to adopt the children. The group's website said the families would take them in for at least five years. Lefebvre did not specify what, if any, legal arrangement had been made.
She told the newspaper Le Parisien that the families' payments were to cover the operation's costs. "We just wanted to save them from death," she said.
The children are in temporary care arranged by the Chadian government and international aid organizations.