- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 18, 2001

Red-faced aid workers and government officials scrambled yesterday to explain how a searing tale of a ferry crammed with hundreds of starving children destined for slavery fell apart as the ship limped into port in the West African nation of Benin early yesterday morning.
Following days of intense international press coverage, Benin authorities announced after the ships landing that the Nigerian-registered ferry MV Etireno carried nowhere near the 250 abandoned children thought to be aboard.
"All this fuss for nothing, " said Antoine Kandissounon, director of the port where the ship docked.
A massive crowd that included Benin government officials, soldiers, U.N. and private aid workers, international television crews and U.S. Ambassador Pamela Bridgewater gathered at the dock in the capital of Cotonou to meet the 200-foot ferry.
Instead of the reported 180 to 250 smuggled children, officials said yesterday, 43 unaccompanied children at most were on board. Benin officials now believe that the bulk of the registered passenger list of 139 were not slaves but poor Benin migrant workers seeking illegal jobs in neighboring West African countries.
Elisabeth Ponce, of the Swiss-based anti-trafficking organization Terre des Hommes, confirmed to reporters in Benin yesterday that at least some of the children aboard the ferry were traveling with their parents.
"I dont know what to think, " said Nicolas Pron, a senior official with UNICEF in Benin. U.N. officials, who helped stoke international outrage over the incident in the past few days, expressed frustration yesterday at the lack of details on just who was aboard the ship.
The ship had been sailing since leaving Cotonou March 30, with brief calls in Gabon and Cameroon. It was after the April 11 stop in Gabon that U.N. relief workers first put out reports that "up to 250" Nigerian children could be aboard the ferry, reportedly to be sold in countries such as Gabon and the Ivory Coast as farm workers, domestics and even prostitutes.
Benin officials said they were first alerted to the possibility of a large cargo of young slaves by authorities in Cameroon.
The figure was later adjusted to 180 amid new reports that the children may be facing starvation as the ship and its limited supplies remained at sea.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said U.S. officials had been told yesterday that "at least 23" children were aboard the ship but all were accompanied by parents or guardians.
"Its really not clear at this point in time why the children that had been reported to be on board were not there, " he said.
"Theres a lot of different pieces of information, none of which quite fits together at this point, frankly, " Mr. Boucher said.
It was not even clear late yesterday if the Etireno incident was a hoax, an overstated story or a case of misidentification, with the real slave ship still at sea.
Benin government officials speculated, without offering proof, that at least some of the children may have been thrown overboard by nervous smugglers. The international investigative agency Interpol was searching the waters of the Gulf of Guinea amid reports that the Etireno had been mistaken for a second ship that held the real cargo of child slaves.
But some Benin officials said the story had been overblown from the start.
"Im not a magician. I hadnt seen the boat, " Benins Minister for Social Protection Ramatou Baba Moussa told Reuters news agency. "As a minister, if I hear that children from Benin are in danger, my duty is to go to their aid, whether it is true or not."
Carl Gottlieb, deputy director of the Washington-based Project of Excellence in Journalism, said many of the media reports appeared to take on faith figures put forward by activists eager to highlight the continuing problems of slavery and human trafficking in West and Central Africa.
"These organizations have a cause to push, even if its a cause all of us can agree is a very worthy one, " Mr. Gottlieb said.
"But journalists are not in the business of pushing anybodys cause. Were in the business of reporting the truth, " Mr. Gottlieb said.
UNICEFs Mr. Pron argued that even if the Etireno was not carrying children bound for slavery, the incident had proved useful in focusing world attention on a real problem.
"If there were not child slaves on that boat, there are other boats trafficking children, " he said.
But Mr. Gottlieb strongly disagreed, saying anti-slavery organizations and U.N. agencies risk a far more serious loss in long-term credibility, whatever the short-term publicity gain.
"The truth is the truth, " he said. "Any organization that proves itself cavalier with the truth is damaging itself over the long run."
* This article was based in part on wire service reports.

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