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Freed American missionaries fly out of Haiti

2010-02-18 13:41:16
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Eight American missionaries flew out of Haiti on Wednesday after a judge ordered them freed, but two of their colleagues remained in detention for further questioning on charges of kidnapping children.

The eight freed missionaries were driven to Port-au-Prince airport by U.S. Embassy officials and then departed the earthquake-hit country on a U.S. Air Force aircraft, witnesses said. "They have departed Haiti for the United States," the U.S. State Department said in a statement late on Wednesday.

The 10 Americans, most of whom are members of a Baptist Church in Idaho, were arrested last month on charges that they tried to take 33 Haitian children out of the country without proper documentation after the devastating January 12 earthquake in Haiti.

The judge found no evidence of criminal intent among the eight who were freed. But he ordered group leader Laura Silsby and another woman, Charisa Coulter, held for further questioning about their previous trips to Haiti.

In its statement, the U.S. State Department said Haitian authorities "have been cooperative in ensuring the individuals' safety and welfare since their arrest and we have every expectation this will continue."

Silas Thompson, a 19-year-old American in a blue T-shirt and red baseball cap, was the first to leave the jail cell in the police station where the missionaries were being held.

Asked how he felt, he replied "pretty good."

His father, Paul Thompson, was next to leave, followed by the rest of the eight. They looked tired but relieved, some of them embraced and one of the three women in the eight released was crying. Most phoned their families immediately.

"I feel good," said Jim Allen, before the group was led out through a crush of photographers, cameramen and journalists to the waiting cars.

"I'M INNOCENT"

Before they left, Haiti's secretary of state for penal affairs, Claudy Gassant, said he visited them in their jail cell. "I told them that what they did was completely illegal," he said.

"The only way to take a child out of the country is through adoption," he said he had told the group. "They said they understood."

As they were released from the cells, one of the women in the group was heard complaining loudly: "You guys took my phone. I didn't do anything and I'm innocent and now its gone," she said.

Silsby and other members of the group of missionaries have repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, saying they had only wanted to help orphans left destitute by the quake.

But they had no Haitian identity or exit papers for the children. Many had living parents who acknowledged turning the children over to the missionaries in the belief they would have better care in the hands of the Americans.

The Americans were arrested on January 29, 17 days after the magnitude 7 earthquake that killed at least 212,000 people.

The missionaries' Haitian lawyer, Aviol Fleurant, said he expected Silsby and Coulter to be eventually freed as well after questioning by the judge. "They will be cleared as well because they are innocent," he said.

The case has been a media distraction at a time when Haitian authorities and foreign aid groups are working to feed and care for hundreds of thousands of homeless quake victims sheltering in makeshift camps scattered across the ruined capital Port-au-Prince.

But President Rene Preval told Reuters: "I haven't been distracted by it, although other people may have been. Our justice system has been handling the case".

Gassant, Haiti's secretary of state for penal affairs, said earlier the U.S. government had allowed the Haitian judicial system to take its course.

"As secretary of state for penal affairs, I can ensure that light will be shed on this affair and the rights of the Americans will be respected," Gassant said. "I commend the U.S. government for not interfering with the ongoing judicial proceedings in Haiti about the Americans."

(Reuters)


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