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Slave traders hunted in Africa

COTONOU, Benin -- An international arrest warrant has been issued for a businessman suspected of trading in child slaves, Benin police said.

The warrant was issued after a ship, with up to 250 children on board, went missing while sailing off Africa's west coast.

Benin police said the Nigerian-registered MV Etireno left Cotonou a week ago but was refused entry to Gabon and Cameroon because it was suspected of child trafficking and was on its way back to Benin.

  AUDIO

Nicholas Pron, Unicef: We are very worried

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Esther Guluma, Unicef: Child slavery is common

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Ivan Watson, NPR Correspondent:

A ring of child traffickers planned this trip
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Officials are unsure that the ship will show up
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  ALSO
 

"Interpol international arrest warrants have been issued for Stanislas Abadtan and two others," a policeman said.

U.N. officials have voiced concern that the crew might try to dump the children at sea to avoid arrest after the ship was refused entry at two African ports.

Port officials said the vessel, which had been expected to dock in Cotonou on Sunday after being turned back from Gabon and Cameroon, was not responding to calls and had not tried to make contact with Benin's authorities.

Estelle Guluman of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) in Cotonou said: "The next stage I think is to try and put some pressure on the international community to try and assist in detecting it."

Benin police over the weekend alerted their colleagues all along the coast to search for the Nigerian-registered MV Etireno. The ageing Etireno had made regular trips from Benin to Gabon loaded with human cargo over the past five years, Hadi Lai Landou, a senior official with the Benin state shipping firm, said.

There has been no contact with the ship since it left Douala three days ago.

The vessel is said to be in poor condition, with no seats and no modern communications system.

Police in Benin said they had alerted neighbouring countries to prevent the ship's captain from unloading its human cargo, believed to be children sold by poor families to be forced into work on plantations or as domestic servants.

In Douala, the Beninois ambassador bought some fuel and food for the passengers but he reported that some were sick.

Police estimate the boat carried 250 children from Benin and neighbouring Togo, although Douala police said the ship carried 28 children and 148 adults.

Officials from the United Nation children's agency UNICEF and Benin's minister of social, family and women's affairs have been awaiting the ship's arrival at the port.

Guluma said child traffickers offer poor families money to take their children to other countries.

Despite international efforts to curb the trade, it persists in West and Central Africa, from where European slave traders shipped millions of people to the Americas from the 16th to 19th centuries.

"Trafficking children ... is very similar to slavery," Guluma told CNN, "because the children are normally not paid and they work very, very hard labour in the plantations and in other areas where they work. The conditions are not the same as slavery, but they work as slave labour, in essence."

More than 200,000 children in West Africa are involved in this kind of labour, Guluma told CNN.

Benin is one of the world's poorest countries, while Gabon, a thinly populated, oil-producing nation to the southeast, is relatively wealthy by African standards.



RELATED STORIES:
Benin police await 'slave' ship
April 13, 2001
Benin searches for child slave ship
April 14, 2001

RELATED SITES:
UNICEF
Benin Government

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