CALLEBAS, Haiti - Desperate parents in this struggling village perched above Haiti's earthquake-flattened capital said they gave their children away willingly, trusting American missionaries who promised them a better life.
The stories the villagers told the Associated Press on Wednesday challenge claims by Laura Silsby of Meridian, Idaho, the Baptist group's leader, that the children came from orphanages or were handed over by distant relatives.
The 10 Baptists, most from Idaho, were arrested last week trying to take 33 Haitian children across the border into the Dominican Republic without the required documents, according to Haitian authorities who accuse the group of child trafficking.
The Americans are to appear today before a prosecutor, who will decide whether to file charges or release them, Communications Minister Marie-Laurence Jocelyn Lassegue told the AP.
Even Prime Minister Max Bellerive has said he recognizes that the Americans may simply be well-meaning do-gooders who believed their Christian intent justified trying to remove the children from quake-crippled Haiti.
Their lawyer, Jorge Puello, told the AP by phone from the Dominican Republic that the missionaries "willingly accepted kids they knew were not orphans because the parents said they would starve otherwise."
The people of Callebas said it all began last week when Isaac Adrien, 20, a local orphanage worker acting on behalf of the Baptists, told his neighbors that the missionaries would educate their children in the Dominican Republic and that parents would be free to visit the children there.
Many parents jumped at the offer.
"It's only because the bus was full that more children didn't go," said Melanie Augustin, 58, who gave her daughter Jovin, 10, to the Americans. Augustin had adopted Jovin because her birth parents couldn't afford to care for her.
In a jailhouse interview Saturday, Silsby told the AP that most of the children had been delivered to the Americans by distant relatives, while some came from orphanages that had collapsed.
"They are very precious kids that have lost their homes and families and are so deeply in need of, most of all, God's love and his compassion," she said.
In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that the attempt to bring the children out of Haiti was "unfortunate whatever the motivation" and that the Americans should have followed proper procedures. She said U.S. officials were in discussions with Haitian authorities about how to resolve the case.
* * *
Crowds say officials seek bribes for food
Hundreds of Haitian protesters on Wednesday accused local officials of demanding bribes for donated food. Protesters jogged along a broad avenue in the Port-au-Prince suburb of Petionville, waving branches and chanting, "They stole the rice! They stole the rice!" Mobs have also stolen food and looted goods from their neighbors in tent camps. Aid workers say food and other supplies are now flowing into the country. But they say red tape, fear of ambush, transportation bottlenecks and corruption are keeping the supplies from many people who need them.