- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 17, 2001

COTONOU, Benin — A ship suspected of carrying child slaves docked here early today, but there was no immediate sign of any slave children. Benin claimed the wrong ship had been identified as the suspicious vessel.
Social Protection Minister Ramatou Baba Moussa said the Nigerian-registered MV Etireno, which was originally believed to have left Benin with the children, had been confused with a second ship, whose name and current location were unknown. She said the Etireno did not have any unaccompanied minors on board.
Benin has issued arrest warrants for the Etireno's owner, captain and crew as well as for three Benin businessmen. But the status of those warrants, in light of Benins claim that the Etireno was the wrong vessel, was uncertain.
"I dont know what to think," said Nicolas Pron, a senior official with the U.N. childrens fund in Benin. "My main concern is that the kids are here and safe, and we will hear if that is the case."
Mr. Pron did not rule out the possibility that the Etirenos captain, a Nigerian with a criminal past, could have somehow earlier unloaded his human cargo.
The white, 200-foot-long boat pulled into Cotonou port shortly after 1 a.m., as Cabinet ministers, police, soldiers, journalists and U.N. employees crowded the dockside.
Dozens of women, a few men and a handful of children could be seen through the ships passenger cabin windows, from which laundry was hanging outside, as the boats Nigerian crew barked orders in English.
Early today authorities in Benin boarded the ship, but found only a few children aboard with their mothers.
"This is very strange. At first sight, it is hard to tell what has happened," said one official. "There is no sign of unaccompanied children."
The ships manifest, according to port sources, said there were only seven children aboard far from what authorities had expected to find on the ship that left Cotonou on March 30 but was turned back by Gabon and later Cameroon.
International arrest warrants were issued for a businessman from Benin, Stanislas Abadtan, and at least two other persons.
Benin officials said they still needed to speak to the passengers and crew before they could explain the confusion about the suspected slaves whereabouts.
Mrs. Moussa said the Etireno left the commercial capital, Cotonou, clandestinely more than a week ago. It returned 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. Mrs. 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 $15 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.
Mr. Pron, the UNICEF official, said earlier yesterday that the organization was "really very frustrated" and increasingly worried about the children.

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