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The BBC's Humphrey Hawksley
"The confectionary industry said it would see what it could do"
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David Bull of the UN Children's Fund
"The wider issues are clearly very important"
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Unicef's Esther Galuma in Benin
"This is quite a normal occurance"
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The BBC's Liz Blunt
"The nights events were bitterly dissapointing"
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The Biscuit, Cake and Chocolate Alliance's Bob Eagle
"On no farms we have visited has slave labour occured"
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Tuesday, 17 April, 2001, 20:21 GMT 21:21 UK
Mystery surrounds child 'slave' ship
Child taken ashore from the Etireno
Only a handful of children were on board the vessel
Mystery continues to shroud a ship suspected of carrying child slaves after the ageing vessel docked in the West African country of Benin on Tuesday with no sign of the 200-plus children it was reported were on board.


We will take in the 23 children and we will question them tomorrow, one by one

Elizabeth Ponce
Aid worker
Cabinet ministers, police and United Nations officials crowded the dockside in the port of Cotonou for the arrival of the Nigerian-registered ship Etireno in the early hours of Tuesday morning.

However, only about 23 children and about 20 adolescents disembarked from the rusting vessel, which has been at the centre of an international search effort since it set sail from Benin two weeks ago.

Etireno
Some suspect the Etireno has been mistaken for another vessel
The children are being cared for by relief agencies, but the question now is what has happened to the children who were believed to have been on board.

One theory suggests they were on board the Etireno and have disembarked somewhere, while another possibility is that the Etireno has been confused with another ship that is carrying child slaves.

A third possibility is that reports about the Etireno's passengers were mistaken and there never was a slave ship.

Hopes fading

Benin's social protection minister says there is a second ship, but since no one seems to know its name, the chances of rescuing any children aboard it look very slim indeed.


A United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef) co-ordinator said the organisation was "really very frustrated" and increasingly worried about the missing children.

"When we heard that [the captain] has a criminal past, we imagined the worst, and the worst is that they could have been thrown overboard," he said.


I am not into child slavery, they cannot prove it; it is one thing to say and one thing to prove

Nigerian captain Lawrence Onome
The vessel's 40-year-old Nigerian captain, Lawrence Onome, said no child slaves had been on the ship.

"I have not committed any offence that will warrant my arrest," he said. "I am not into child slavery, they cannot prove it. It is one thing to say and one thing to prove."

Confusion

Benin officials said they still needed to speak to the passengers and crew before they could explain the confusion about the suspected slaves' whereabouts.

Elizabeth Ponce, a worker with the humanitarian organisation Terre des Hommes, said: "We will take in the 23 children and we will question them one by one."

Medics waiting for ship to turn up in Cotonou, Benin
Aid officials had set up a reception centre in Cotonu
International arrest warrants had been issued for the crew of the Etireno on suspicion that they were smuggling children to work as slave labourers.

But Social Protection Minister Ramatou Baba Moussa said the Etireno had been confused with a second ship, whose name and current location were unknown.

Both vessels had been turned away from Gabon after attempting to dock with illegal migrants on board, she added.

Despite international efforts to curb the trade, child slavery persists in West and Central Africa.

Human-rights activists say the selling of children into slavery is still quite common in impoverished Benin, although it is officially banned.

They say parents are often tempted to sell their children for as little as $15 in the hope that they may find work in richer West African states, usually on cocoa or coffee plantations.

Thousands of children between the ages of nine and 12 are thought to work on plantations in Ivory Coast, the world's top cocoa producer.

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See also:

17 Apr 01 | Africa
'Slave ship' timeline
16 Apr 01 | Africa
West Africa's 'little maids'
06 Aug 99 | Africa
West Africa's child slave trade
10 Jan 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Benin
28 Sep 00 | Africa
The bitter taste of slavery
29 Sep 00 | Africa
Mali's children in slavery
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