After arriving in the Chadian capital N'Djamena to intervene on the Europeans' behalf, Sarkozy said he would rather see the French people tried in French courts.

'Good relations'

He said there would be discussions between their judiciaries to find "within weeks, an outcome which respects Chadian justice and gives full guarantees to all parties".

 

"France has confidence in the Chadian state and the Chadian justice system," he said at a joint news conference with Idriss Deby, his Chadian counterpart.

"Relations between Chad and France are good and ... this rather lamentable escapade has nothing to do with the deployment of the European force in Chad."

France, the former colonial power, has troops stationed in Chad and will provide about half of an EU peacekeeping force numbering up to 3,000 troops that will deploy in the violent eastern region in coming weeks to protect Sudanese and Chadian refugees.

Earlier the seven Europeans, tired but relieved, were driven under military escort from the prison in the capital N'Djamena to the main law courts, where they were formally released.

"I'm fine, I'm fine, happy," French photojournalist Jean-Daniel Guillou told reporters before a Chadian soldier asked him to stop talking.


Unicef doubt

The French and Spanish nationals were arrested in the eastern town of Abeche, near the border with Sudan's war-torn Darfur region, just over a week ago as they tried to fly the children, aged between one and 10 years, to Europe.

Zoe's Ark claims it intended to place the orphans from Darfur with European families for foster care.

But UN and Chadian officials say most of the infants had come from families with at least one parent living on the violent Chad-Sudan border, contradicting the "war orphans" description of the children given by Zoe's Ark.

"Our position is that this is not consistent with international norms or practices or laws," Ann Veneman, the head of Unicef, said.

The UN’s childrens fund is caring for the youngsters and tracking down their relatives.