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Haitian Authorities Question US Missionaries Accused of Child Trafficking

A judge in Haiti has questioned a group of American Baptist missionaries accused of trying to take 33 Haitian children out of the earthquake-shattered country without proper authorization.

Officials say five of the 10 Americans pleaded their case Tuesday before a judge in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince.  The other five are to go before the judge Wednesday.

The five men and five women were taken into custody last Friday as they tried to cross into the neighboring Dominican Republic with the children.

The Americans have said they were taking the children to an orphanage in the Dominican Republic, but some of the youngsters say they have living parents.

An international aid group caring for the children says parents have come to reclaim them.  A spokesman for the group, SOS Children's Villages, tells the French news agency family reunions will not be allowed until it is clear why and how the children were taken. 

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's chief of staff, Cheryl Mills, told reporters in Washington Tuesday that care must be taken to ensure adoptions do not separate youngsters from their families.

She said the United States will only grant visas to those foreign children who have been formally approved for adoption in their home countries.

The case has reignited fears that Haitian orphans or those misidentified as such will fall victim to child trafficking.

The detained Americans face possible charges of child trafficking, conspiracy and kidnapping of minors.  They are from a Idaho-based charity called the New Life Children's Refuge.  Laura Silsby, who leads the charity, denies wrongdoing and says her group was well-intentioned.

Separately, human rights experts with the United Nations warn that Haiti's children are at risk of increased abduction, slavery and trafficking due to increased insecurity following the January 12 earthquake.  The experts say unaccompanied children are particularly vulnerable.

Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.

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