PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Eight American missionaries were freed from a Haitian jail and left for Miami on Wednesday, nearly three weeks after being arrested trying to take 33 children out of the earthquake-stricken country.
The Baptists, most from Idaho, were sequestered in a tent on the tarmac protected by Air Force troops after U.S. diplomats escorted them out of the nearby police station.
The group's departure in a U.S. Air Force C-130 cargo plane began earlier Wednesday when Judge Bernard Saint-Vil said eight of the 10 missionaries were free to leave without bail because parents of the children had testified they voluntarily gave up their children, believing the Americans would give them a better life.
Saint-Vil said, however, that he still wanted to question the group's leader, Laura Silsby, and her former nanny, Charisa Coulter, because they had visited Haiti prior to the quake to inquire about obtaining orphans.
Just after dusk, the bedraggled, sweat-stained group of eight walked out of the Haitian jail escorted by U.S. diplomats. They waited until they were safely inside a white embassy van before some flashed smiles and gave a thumbs up to reporters.
The missionaries were taking the children to the Dominican Republic on Jan. 29 without Haitian adoption certificates. Their detentions came just as aid officials were urging a halt to short-cut adoptions in the wake of the earthquake.
Before their release, Haiti's No. 2 justice official, Claudy Gassent, informed them of the judge's decision but said he also gave them a lecture. "They know they broke the law," he said.
The missionaries deny the trafficking charge and say they were on a do-it-yourself "rescue mission" to take child quake victims to a hastily prepared orphanage in the Dominican Republic.
French President Nicholas Sarkozy announced in a landmark visit Wednesday that his country would cancel Haiti's $56 million debt, and pledged hundreds of millions in aid to help in its recovery. His four-hour trip marks the first time a French leader has set foot in Haiti since the Caribbean nation expelled the French in a slave revolt and secured its independence more than 200 years ago.