N‘DJAMENA (Reuters) - More than 1,000 Chadian schoolchildren shouted anti-French slogans and stoned foreigners’ cars in the capital N‘Djamena on Wednesday to demand the trial of six French nationals accused of abducting children.
Police firing tear gas and wielding batons dispersed the young protesters outside the French embassy, where they attempted to congregate to condemn what they called meddling in Chad’s affairs by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Mostly aged from 14 to 18 and wearing their school uniforms, the protesters marched in the dusty capital as lawyers for six French nationals charged with abducting the children and fraud said a Chadian judge had rejected a bail application.
Several protests have taken place in Chad since authorities last month arrested the members of a French humanitarian activist group Zoe’s Ark and accused them of trying to fly 103 African children aged 1-10 to Europe without authorisation.
If convicted in a criminal trial, the six face possible forced labour terms of between five and 20 years.
Shouting “Whites, children snatchers!” and “Sarko, out of Chad!”, some demonstrators threw stones at vehicles driven by white foreigners or those carrying diplomatic plates. They also threatened foreign journalists.
Outrage in Chad has increased since Sarkozy flew to N‘Djamena this month to obtain the release of three French journalists and four Spanish flight attendants who had been detained over the affair. Chad released three more Spanish air crew and a Belgian pilot on Friday.
Sarkozy said he would go back to N‘Djamena to fetch the remaining detained French, angering local authorities.
“As if Chad is a just a big village for him ... It’s regrettable a French head of state can make this kind of statement against the Chadian people,” said Djadda Oumar, one of the protest organisers.
The case has strained relations between France and its former colony, where the European Union soon hopes to deploy a peacekeeping force to protect civilians in the volatile east.
Sarkozy has said he would prefer to see the detained French tried in France, but Chad’s Justice Minister Albert Pahimi Padacke said his country’s judiciary was able to handle the case. “There is no risk that the trial will take place anywhere else, it will happen in Chad,” he said.
Lawyers representing the detained French said they would appeal the Chadian judge’s decision to reject bail.
“What’s important for us, at a time when the local population is being used for political ends -- we must not fool ourselves, anti-French sentiment is being stoked -- is to show there’s a desire to respect the judicial sovereignty of Chad,” one of them, Gilbert Collard, said.
Another, Abdou Lamia, said the judge had cited the “risk of disturbing public order” in his decision to reject bail.
Zoe’s Ark had said it planned to place orphans from Sudan’s war-torn Darfur region with families in Europe for fostering.
U.N. officials said most of the children were not orphans but came from families living on the Chad-Sudan border.
Some local families said Zoe’s Ark members persuaded them to hand over their children for education in towns in eastern Chad, but they had never mentioned flying them overseas to Europe.
U.N. aid officials in eastern Chad say they are concerned the scandal could hamper efforts to care for more than 400,000 Sudanese refugees from Darfur and displaced Chadians in the border area.
Additional reporting by Jon Boyle in Paris