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PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI — “God wanted us to come here to help children, we are convinced of that,” Laura Silsby, one of 10 Americans accused of trafficking Haitian children, said Monday through the bars of a jail cell here. “Our hearts were in the right place.”

Whatever their intentions, the Americans who were detained at the Dominican border with 33 children struck a deep emotional chord in this earthquake-damaged country.

Even as Haiti’s crippled government asserted itself in the name of defending the nation’s children, officials made it clear that more was at stake. In the wake of the worst natural disaster in Haiti’s history, authorities have opened the country to a flood of international assistance, some of it coming uncomfortably close to infringing on national sovereignty.

The 10 Americans, authorities said, crossed the line.

Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive angrily denounced the Americans as “kidnappers” who “knew what they were doing was wrong.” Justice Minister Paul Denis said, “We may be weakened, but without laws the Haitian state would cease to exist.”

And the chief of the National Judicial Police, Frantz Thermilus, said, “What surprises me is that these people would never do something like this in their own country. We must make clear they cannot do such things in ours.”

The Americans, Baptists affiliated with a church in Meridian, Idaho, said they were trying to rescue orphans from the earthquake and take them to an orphanage in the Dominican Republic. But even that noble intent began to fall apart under scrutiny on Monday as questions were raised about whether the children were indeed orphans.

Silsby said that a Haitian pastor in Port-au-Prince, Jean Sanbil of the Sharing Jesus Ministries, had brought them the children, whose ages ranged from 2 months to 12 years.

While she acknowledged that the group not have documentation that the children were orphans or permission to remove them from the country, she told reporters on Saturday, after they had been arrested, that they had planned to return to the capital to complete the paperwork.

On Monday, Silsby said that in the midst of the crisis they did not think they needed the documents. She said the group did not intend to offer the children for adoption. “We intended to raise those children and be with them their entire lives, if necessary,” she said.

Wearing pedal pushers, sandals and a top printed with palm trees, she recalled the rambunctious twin boys and the two skinny sisters placed in her care. “These kind of children are sold across the border for the price of a chicken,” she said. “We wanted to give them lives of joy and dignity in God’s love.”