French government refutes claims by Arche de Zoe head

Paris  - The French government on Tuesday refuted claims by the founder of the controversial French charity Arche de Zoe (Zoe's Ark) that it knew and approved of his plans to fly 103 supposed Darfur orphans out of Chad.

In a press statement, the Foreign Ministry said it had "always expressed its opposition to the project presented by the leaders of Arche de Zoe," and charged that the operation had been "obscured from beginning to end."

In interviews with France Info radio and the daily Le Figaro, the charity's founder, Eric Breteau, had said Monday that he had divulged his plans to an advisor to President Nicolas Sarkozy and to Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner's political advisor.

"One can not organize such an operation without the benefit of support in political high places," Breteau was quoted as saying on the Le Figaro website.

In addition, according to France Info radio, Justice Minister Rachida Dati said Tuesday that Breteau's claim that she and Sarkozy's ex-wife, Cecilia, were to have met the children on their arrival in France was false.

Breteau and five other Arche de Zoe aid workers were arrested in eastern Chad on October 25 as they were about to fly the purported Darfuri orphans to France. It was later established that most of the children were from Chad, not Darfur, and that they had living relatives.

The six aid workers were sentenced to eight years of hard labour by a Chadian court, and then transferred to France to serve out their sentence according to French law.

All six were finally pardoned on March 31 by Chadian President Idriss Deby and released from prison. However, Breteau and three others are still under investigation in France on a number of charges related to the affair. (dpa)

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