NDJAMENA (AFP) — Three Spanish air crew and a Belgian pilot were freed on Friday on the orders of Chadian prosecutors probing a French charity's bid illegally to fly 103 children out of the country.
The Spaniards, pilot Augustin Rey, co-pilot Sergio Munoz and cabin steward Daniel Gonzalez, took off for home with their junior foreign affairs minister Bernadino Leon, who arrived on an air force jet to collect them and meet Chad's Prime Minister Nourradine Delwa Kassire Coumakoye.
Members of the air crew told reporters they were "happy" and "relieved" after two weeks in jail, first in Abeche in eastern Chad and then in Ndjamena, while Leon said he was "grateful to Chad" and satisfied with the outcome of "quiet, efficient diplomacy."
They arrived at an airport near Madrid just before 10:00 pm (2100 GMT) on Friday where they were met on the runway by family and friends and Spain's deputy prime minister Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega.
Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos thanked "Chadian authorities and particularly President (Idriss) Deby for the way the situation was handled ... which in the end has made it possible for our citizens to return home."
Moratinos said, while on a visit to Chile, that Madrid has offered to pay for the education of the children, who are currently in an Abeche orphanage, as a response to a "generous attitude" on Chad's part.
After French President Nicolas Sarkozy made a lightning trip to Chad on November 4 to collect three French journalists and four Spanish air hostesses, only six Europeans now remain in jail cells.
They are members of the charity L'Arche de Zoe (Zoe's Ark), which caused an international outcry and upset relations between Chad and the former colonial power when it tried to fly the 103 children aged between about one and 10 to foster homes in France.
That flight was stopped and the first arrests made on October 25.
Zoe's Ark has maintained throughout that its aim was a children's rescue operation to save those it took to be youngsters orphaned by the war-wracked Darfur region of Sudan, across Chad's ethnically strife-prone eastern border. To do this, they chartered a privately owned Spanish Boeing 757.
However, aid staff from international agencies who have since cared for the children learned that almost all came from the Chad side of the border and have at least one living parent.
In Geneva, UN Children's Fund spokeswoman Veronique Taveau said Friday that all but "four children too young to express themselves" had given their names and the villages they came from to Chadian and UNICEF personnel.
Reuniting families could take another fortnight, Taveau said, once missions had gone to villages to cross-check details and ensure relatives could take in the 21 girls and 82 boys.
Belgian pilot Jacques Wilmart, who flew the children from Chad's border to Abeche, is a retired Sabena employee of 75. He was hospitalised at the French base in Ndjamena overnight after what his son Patrick Wilmart on Friday told AFP was "a malaise brought on by fatigue, lack of food and stress".
He was to be evacuated to Belgium on an air ambulance flight chartered by his son and wife, with support of the Belgian defence ministry.
In Brussels, Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht declared himself overjoyed at the news and thanked the Chadian authorities "for their understanding in this matter".
When Spain's Leon first tried to land in Ndjamena on Friday, he agreed to have his flight diverted until the ruling came down, and airport authorities said he made a stopover in northern Nigeria, not Niger as initially reported by Spanish national radio.
The mission by Zoe's Ark has been widely condemned as illegal, foolish and amateurish, especially by large non-governmental organisations and UN agencies, but its lawyers want what its members did downgraded from serious crimes of child kidnapping and fraud to less weighty offences.
Under current charges against those concerned or accused of complicity, the suspects face hard labour jail terms if convicted.
Chad is home to about 270,000 refugees from Sudan's war-wracked Darfur region. Camps also house hundreds of thousands of Chadians displaced by ethnic conflict and insurgency in the east of their own country near the border.