Fears mount for missing child slave boat
COTONOU, Benin (AP) – Fears were growing for scores of children on a suspected slave ship Monday, but Benin officials claimed that authorities had identified the wrong ship as the suspicious vessel.
Social Protection Minister Ramatou Baba Moussa said the ship that was originally believed to have left Benin with the children was expected back in the country within hours, but did not have any unaccompanied minors on board.
She said the Nigerian-registered MV Etireno had been confused with a second ship, whose name and current location were unknown.
Her claims could not be independently verified.
”I don’t know what to think,” said Nicolas Pron, a senior official with UNICEF in Benin. ”My main concern is that the kids are here and safe, and we will hear if that is the case.”
Pron did not rule out the possibility that the Etireno’s captain, a Nigerian with a criminal past, could have thrown his human cargo overboard.
Moussa said the Etireno left the commercial capital, Cotonou, clandestinely more than a week ago. It was now returning with an unknown number of passengers – but no children – who had been refused entry in Gabon because they did not have the necessary travel documents, she said.
A second ship arrived in Gabon at about the same time with about 250 passengers on board – many of them young victims of child traffickers – she said. Moussa insisted that ship had nothing to do with Benin.
On Thursday, one of the ships was refused port in Douala, Cameroon, according to U.N. and Benin officials, but it was not immediately clear which one.
Despite international efforts to stamp out child trafficking, it remains a serious problem in West and Central Africa, where desperately poor parents are sometimes willing to give up their children for as little as $14 to smuggling rings that promise to educate them and find them jobs.
Boys are then typically resold to cotton and cocoa plantations for as much as $340 in countries such as Gabon and Ivory Coast. Girls often end up as domestic workers or prostitutes.
Pron, the UNICEF official, said earlier Monday that the organization was ”really very frustrated” and increasingly worried about the children. He said there were concerns that the crew might throw the children overboard.
It wasn’t clear how Benin’s late Monday announcement that the unidentified vessel was the slave ship would affect the search.
During the days long wait for the MV Etireno, the Nigerian police and navy had deployed along the coast to search for the vessel, officials said. A sighting was reported Saturday near the Nigerian port of Calabar, but the ship disappeared before it could be intercepted, said Tunde Fagbohungbe of the country’s Women Trafficking and Child Labor Eradication Foundation.
Earlier Monday, Moussa said Benin had contacted the United Nations and planned to call ambassadors of the United States and France to ask them to launch a search.
UNICEF official Zachary Adams said outside intervention was needed, but it was not immediately clear whether the West would assist.
France, Benin’s former colonial ruler, has a naval vessel routinely stationed off West Africa. British warships also regularly visit the war-battered nation of Sierra Leone.
In Cotonou, U.S. Embassy acting Public Affairs Officer Liam Humphreys said Ambassador Pamela Bridgewater had been in informal contact with Benin Cabinet ministers and had communicated the West African nation’s desire for assistance to Washington.
Officials at the French defense and foreign ministries said they were not aware of any requests for assistance.
Benin has issued arrest warrants for the MV Etireno Nigerian owner, captain and crew as well as for three Benin businessmen. But the status of those warrants, in light of Monday night’s announcement, was uncertain.
Benin, a small country of 6 million people, has a history of slave trading. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, it was known as the Slave Coast for its role as a center of the trans-Atlantic trade.
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