N'DJAMENA, Chad Seven Europeans among 17 detained for over a week in an alleged attempt to kidnap 103 African children were released on Sunday and left the country with French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
It was the second time since taking office in May that the French leader has intervened in a major international legal dispute.
The Europeans among them nine French citizens were arrested Oct. 25 when a charity calling itself Zoe's Ark was stopped from flying the children to Europe. The group said the children were from Sudan's Darfur region and that it intended to place them with host families.
Sarkozy met with Chad's leader, Idriss Deby, trading back slaps and cheek kisses, before leaving Chad on his official jet with three French journalists and four flight attendants from Spain.
"They are free. It's over. It's the end," said Jean-Bernard Padare, a lawyer for the group.
Deby said he acted in his own volition. "There is no pressure on Chad, nor on president Deby," he told reporters.
Zoe's Ark maintains its intentions were purely humanitarian and that it had conducted investigations over several weeks to determine the children it was taking were orphans.
However, France's Foreign Ministry and others have cast doubt on the group's claims that the children were orphans from Sudan's western Darfur region, where fighting since 2003 has forced thousands to flee to Chad and led directly or indirectly to the deaths of more than 200,000 people.
The Elysee palace in Paris said Sarkozy and Deby would discuss "the situation of our compatriots and the other European citizens being prosecuted" on kidnapping charges.
Aid workers who interviewed the children said Thursday most of them had been living with adults they considered their parents and came from villages on the Chadian-Sudanese border region.
A report in Le Parisien daily Sunday quoted men who identified themselves as the fathers of several of the children as saying the charity workers offered to educate their children.
They "talked about a new school that had been built ... and (said) our children could be educated there," said a man quoted by the paper who was identified only as Adberahim. He said three of his children were among those taken by the group.
Those detained in the case include the charity workers, the journalists and the crew of the plane the group planned to use to take the children to France. The crew included Spaniards and a Belgian pilot.
A turning point in the case appeared to come on Thursday, when Deby said on state television that he hoped the journalists and members of the flight crew would be freed soon making a distinction between them and the charity workers.
On Saturday, the head of Zoe's Ark, Eric Breteau, appeared at a pretrial hearing in N'Djamena along with the three journalists and three Spanish members of the flight crew.
France Info radio reported that during the hearing, Breteau told judicial officials that the journalists and the Spanish flight crew had nothing to do with the group's activities.
Earlier this week, Sarkozy had harsh words for Breteau's group, saying its workers "were wrong to do what they did."
He also said last week that Paris "condemns these activities," adding that he had told Deby in a phone call he would work toward finding a resolution acceptable to both countries.
"We are going to try to find agreement so that no one in this affair loses face," Sarkozy said without elaborating.
France's defense and foreign ministers were ordered to investigate how Zoe's Ark was able to work in the country without the knowledge of the French Embassy in N'Djamena, his office said. A report is expected within a month.
The episode comes at a sensitive time in Chad's relations with Europe. The European Union is planning to deploy a peacekeeping force in Chad and Central African Republic composed largely of French soldiers. The 3,000-strong force is to help refugees along the two nations' borders with Darfur.
In July, Sarkozy's then-wife, Cecilia, helped broker the release of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor held for more than eight years in Libya, where they were accused of deliberately infecting hundreds of children with the AIDS virus.Cecilia flew the six medical workers to Bulgaria aboard a French presidential plane. She and Sarkozy announced their divorce last month.
Associated Press Writer Jenny Barchfield in Paris contributed to this report.