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Slave ship link soccer star suspended

The Etireno was the centre of an international search  

BERLIN, Germany -- A soccer star said to be the owner of an African child slave trade ship has been suspended by his German club.

First division side VfL Wolfsburg said it has suspended its top scorer Jonathan Akpoborie and has asked him to answer questions about the ship.

Akpoborie, 32, was not available for comment on Monday. Last week he denied allegations of any wrongdoing raised in the German media.

The first division team said in a statement that Akpoborie, a Nigerian international said to own the MV Etireno with his family, had been suspended indefinitely.

Wolfsburg said it made the move after the magazine Focus reported allegations made by the Swiss based aid group Terre des Hommes.

The group said it found that some of the unaccompanied children on board the ship said their parents had received money for them.

The magazine said the organisation had interviewed 23 children between the ages of three and 13 who were found on a ship at the centre of a hunt for child slaves off the West African coast earlier this month.

Wolfsburg said in a statement: "Because of the high degree of credibility of Terre des Hommes, the supervisory board and the team management feel obliged, in order to support efforts to clear up the matter, that the player Jonathan Akpoborie be released indefinitely from his contractual obligations and thus be available with his time to clear up the accusations."

Wolfsburg, which is sponsored by carmaker Volkswagen AG said that during the suspension Akpoborie will not take part in team practices or matches.

Authorities in Benin found mostly economic migrants aboard the MV Etireno on April 17. Police questioned 40 children aged up to 18 found on the ship. Officials had suspected the ship was carrying up to 250 child slaves.

The hunt for the ship grabbed world attention and highlighted a trade which UNICEF, the U.N. children's agency, says involves 200,000 children a year in West and Central Africa.

The Benin government, UNICEF and an aid group stopped short, however, of alleging in a joint statement that any of the 43 children and young adults aboard the Nigerian-registered MV Etireno when it docked in Benin on April 17 were destined for slavery.

The children, old enough to understand what was happening to them, said they were headed to Gabon to work in commerce, agriculture or domestic service, Terre des Hommes, which is caring for 23 of them, said.

Five children told authorities their parents were paid around $14 before their departure, the group's representative in Benin, Alfonso Gonzalez Jaggli, said. Eight said they were travelling with a person they did not know.

"It is confirmed that the adventure of the Etireno ship enters effectively in the category of a regional traffic in minors and a clandestine workers' network," the statement said. The three signatories "vigorously denounce this practice."

The Etireno grabbed world headlines when Benin's government, citing officials in Cameroon, said a ship loaded with child slaves had been turned away from two African ports and was headed back to the commercial capital, Cotonou.

After days of searching, international officials were confounded when a ferry marked as the Etireno pulled into port with a load of exhausted and frightened men, women and children -- not the 200-plus children they had expected.

Lawrence Onome, the ship's Nigerian captain, denied he was ferrying child slaves and said he had nothing to hide.

The children and youths came from Benin, Togo, Mali, Senegal and Guinea, ranging in age from infancy to 24, the statement said.

Only one child has been claimed by any of the accompanying adults, Terre des Hommes said in a separate statement. The group said it will attempt to re-unite the children with their families.

"Without papers, starving, although apparently not suffering from illness or serious psychological traumas, these children are sheltered, fed, cared for and comforted by Terre des Hommes," it added

UNICEF believes some 200,000 children are trafficked across West and Central African borders every year.

Smugglers persuade desperately poor families in countries such as Benin, Mali and Burkina Faso to give up their children in the belief they will be educated and found jobs.

Instead, many are sold to coffee, cocoa and cotton plantation owners in better-off countries such as Gabon and Ivory Coast. Others end up as domestic workers, market vendors and even prostitutes.

Benin, a country of 6 million people, is no stranger to slavery. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, it became known as the Slave Coast for its role as a centre of a vast trade that ferried slaves from Africa to the Americas.

Child slavery: Africa's growing problem
April 17, 2001
Benin ship crew says captain held
April 19, 2001
'Slave boat' mystery exposes legacy of child trafficking
April 19, 2001
Benin police launch official inquiry into slave boat saga
April 18, 2001
Benin probes 'slave' boat chase
April 17, 2001
Ship docks in Benin with 28 children
April 17, 2001
Slave traders hunted in Africa
April 16, 2001

International Federation terre des hommes

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