Benin says 'slave' ship spotted
COTONOU, Benin -- A ship believed to be carrying up to 250 child slaves could be off the coast of Equatorial Guinea's island capital.
The Benin government said it had reports on Monday that the ship had been seen near Malabo, on the island of Biko, Equatorial Guinea.
The boat has not been located since it left the Cameroonian port of Douala on Thursday.
"According to the information we received today, the boat would be off Equatorial Guinea, off Malabo," Social Protection Minister Ramatou Baba Moussa said in Cotonou.
The Nigerian-registered MV Etireno has been at sea for more than two weeks with its suspected human cargo of 180 children.
An international arrest warrant has been issued for a Benin businessman for alleged child trafficking in the case.
Benin police said the 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.
"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.
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 Etireno and to prevent it the ship's captain from unloading the human cargo, believed to be children sold by poor families to be forced into work on plantations or as domestic workers.
The aging 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.
The vessel is said to be in poor condition, with no seats and no modern communications system.
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.
Despite international efforts to curb human trafficking, 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 south-east, is relatively wealthy by African standards.
Reuters contributed to this report.
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