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PARIS - French officials sought yesterday to ease tensions with Chad after President Nicolas Sarkozy offended local sensibilities by promising to return to France a group of Europeans accused of abducting 103 African children.
Chadian ministers slapped down Sarkozy's comment saying their own judiciary would handle the case of the self-proclaimed humanitarians, who are charged with abduction and fraud for trying to fly the children to France.
Sarkozy's spokesman said the president had never meant to question Chadian independence, but had simply repeated his preference to see the six French nationals tried at home rather than in N'Djamena, where they are now detained.
"What he said was that obviously everything depends on the decisions of the Chadian judicial authorities.
"One cannot think differently," spokesman David Martinon said in Washington, where Sarkozy is on a state visit.
The French president flew to Chad on Sunday to pick up three French journalists and four Spanish flight attendants who were among 17 Europeans arrested last month as they prepared to fly the children out of the country.
Relief organisation Zoe's Ark has said the children were orphans from neighbouring Darfur region, but the Chadians said almost all the infants had at least one parent and had come from the Chad-Sudan borderlands.
The accused face up to 20 years in jail with hard labour. They would get lesser sentences in France and Paris is highlighting the fact that the two countries have a judicial cooperation deal that might make extradition possible.
But Chad's state lawyer told reporters that such an accord might be difficult in the Zoe's Ark case and dismissed Sarkozy's pledge to bring the arrested Europeans back home "whatever they may have done".
"That's a politician talking. We'll be applying the law and not politics," said Philippe Houssine, who represents the Chadian state in the child abduction case.
Outside N'Djamena's main law-court building, where the detained Europeans have been questioned, about 50 Chadian protesters demanded that the accused be tried there.
"Not in France," they chanted, banging their fists on the roof of a car carrying lawyers representing the French, underscoring the deep emotions the case has provoked.
France's Prime Minister Francois Fillon also weighed in on the row yesterday, denouncing Zoe's Ark, but adding that French citizens were always entitled to help from Paris.
"This association deceived us," Fillon said.
"That said, the representatives of this association are French nationals and have the right to the protection of France."
But opposition politicians sided with Chad, saying the hyperactive Sarkozy had overextended himself and was trying to take charge of too many difficult dossiers at once.
"He is doing everything and at the end of the day he makes mistakes. That wasn't a small mistake, it was a serious mistake," said Jean-Marc Ayrault, head of the Socialist Party in parliament. - Reuters