Ship captain detained in slave saga investigation in Benin
COTONOU, Benin (AP) – Police in Benin have detained the captain and some of the crew of a ship that set off a frantic search for child slaves along the coast of western Africa.
The move came just hours after police arrived late Wednesday and discovered that Nigerian Capt. Lawrence Onome was not aboard the MV Etireno despite orders not to leave, chief ship’s mate Morris Emonena said Thursday.
Emonena and other witnesses said police waited for Onome and then took him and some other crew members away for questioning.
Government spokesman Gaston Zossou confirmed the crew’s detention.
”If the government feels the need to pursue justice, it’s because we suspect something is wrong, it’s because there is an anomaly. We are searching for the truth,” Zossou said.
The seizures are part of an investigation that began Wednesday to determine whether the ship was trafficking children. Police in Cotonou also began questioning the ship’s passengers – both children and adults.
So far, no evidence has emerged to prove the ferry was trafficking child slaves.
The Nigerian-registered Etireno became the center of world attention last week when Benin’s government, citing officials in Cameroon, said a ship loaded with child slaves had been turned away from two African ports and was headed back to Cotonou.
Passengers said they had been turned away from ports in Cameroon and Gabon because they didn’t have legal documents to enter those countries. Most had apparently made the journey in search of work abroad.
Some say the Etireno was confused with a second ship, whose name and whereabouts remain a mystery. No second ship has been found, and the Benin government doubts it exists, Zossou said.
”The second ship is a ghost ship. Born, in my opinion, out of the imagination of certain people,” Zossou said. ”But since the whole world is talking about it, the Benin government asks everybody’s help to find it.”
Onome, the ship’s Nigerian captain, denies he was ferrying child slaves and says he has nothing to hide.
Officials of the U.N. Children’s agency and aid workers said between 30 and 40 children who left the ship were being cared for in local shelters. It is not clear whether or not they had been traveling with their parents.
Despite efforts to end child trafficking, the trade remains a serious problem on the continent, particularly in West and Central Africa.
”This affair does not belong exclusively to Benin. It’s a regional problem,” Zossou said.
Parents living in some of the poorest countries on the planet are sometimes willing to sell off their own children for as little as $14 – often in the belief the children will be educated and find employment. Most end up instead as prostitutes or slaves in coffee and cocoa plantations.
Benin, a small country of 6 million people, is no stranger to slavery. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, it became known as the Slave Coast for its role as a center of a vast trade that ferried slaves from Africa to the Americas.
On the Net:
United Nations Children’s Agency: http://www.unicef.org
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