Facebook Twitter

Police launch probe of slave ship saga

SHARE Police launch probe of slave ship saga

COTONOU, Benin — Police launched an investigation Wednesday into a ship that sparked a multination search for hundreds of suspected child slaves along the western coast of Africa.

The Nigerian-registered MV Etireno, which U.N. and local officials originally thought left Benin two weeks ago with 100 to 250 children destined for the slave trade, docked in Cotonou Tuesday, but more adults than children were aboard.

"An official inquiry was launched today," said Martin Degan, head of the police department's child protection unit. "The captain of the Etireno and his crew are still confined aboard because we need them for the investigation. That's all we can say for now."

The vessel first grabbed world headlines Thursday when government officials in Benin announced that a ship loaded with child slaves had been turned away from two African ports and was headed back to Cotonou.

Benin said it had been tipped off by officials in Douala, Cameroon, where the boat had been prevented from docking last week.

Passengers and crew of the Etireno confirmed the vessel had indeed been turned away from Douala, as well as from Gabon's capital, Libreville — but not because it was carrying child slaves. The boat apparently didn't have proper documents, and its human cargo had traveled abroad willingly, in search of work.

The ship's Nigerian captain, Lawrence Onome, denies he was trafficking child slaves and says he has nothing to hide.

Some U.N. officials and aid workers speculate that the children might have been thrown overboard, although there is no evidence to suggest that. Others say the Etireno was confused with a second ship, whose whereabouts remain a mystery.

"We are pleased, extremely pleased. We'll do whatever we can to facilitate and move the process along," said Nicolas Pron, a senior official with the U.N. children's fund in Benin, after hearing the police inquiry had begun.

The ferry, once known as the Nordby, was built in Denmark in 1969 and shuttled between Danish ports until it was sold three years ago to the Nigerian company, Titanic Investments, said Gert Jacobsen, a spokesman for the Scandlines shipping group. At the time of its sale, its name was changed to Etireno.

The boat has a capacity of 400 passengers, but Social Protection Minister Ramatou Baba Moussa said its handwritten manifest listed 139 names, including seven children.

Aid workers said they took a number of unaccompanied minors from the ferry to two children's homes in Cotonou, where they were allowed to eat and rest before being interviewed by police. It was not immediately clear how many of the children were aboard.

UNICEF officials said 31 children were taken from the ship and placed in homes. The Swiss-run Men of the Earth charity, which runs one of the homes, put the number at 43.

The U.N. children's fund on Tuesday ordered its offices along Africa's western coast to stay alert for the possibility that the child traffickers they sought might turn up elsewhere.

But on Wednesday there was still no news of another ship.

Despite efforts to end child trafficking, the trade remains a serious problem on the continent, particularly in West and Central Africa.

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.

Alfonso Gonzalez Jaggli, regional delegate of the Men of the Earth, said the police inquiry into the Etireno was a necessity.

"An international investigation would be the logical way to prove what happened to the others," Jaggli said. "It is not possible to clear up the question of trafficking at this time."

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.