A ship thought loaded with child slaves docked in Benin late Monday — but there were no signs of the children.
Footage from Cotonou showed soldiers and aid workers escorting passengers from the Nigerian-registered MV Etireno. But none of these passengers appeared to be slaves.
"A ship that bears the name of the ship that everyone was looking for, has turned up at the port in Benin, and there were people aboard — just not the children that everone expected," said Alfred Ironside of the United Nations Children's Fund. "It turns out there were families and very young infants aboard, and all of them looked very safe and sound."
But that doesn't have aid workers and other observers relieved. In fact, it's quite the opposite. Some fear Etireno Capt. Lawrence Onome — a man reportedly with a shady criminal past — may have dumped his human cargo — between 100 and 250 children, according to some reports — into the sea.
However, it is also possible that the slaves were dumped off somewhere else, or placed aboard a second ship.
Onome denied the charges.
"I have not committed any offense that will warrant my arrest," the Nigerian captain told APTN. "I am not into child slavery, they can't prove it. It is one thing to say and one thing to prove."
If They Exist, They May Not Be Found
The BBC is reporting that many on the scene now believe that the slave children — if they do indeed exist — may already be on their way to a life of indentured servitude. If they are on a second ship, they may be impossible to find — without a name or even location, ships are incredibly difficult to track.
Also, there was another mystery surrounding the ship. Early reports said the slave-carrying Etireno was a decrepit rusted hulk. But the white, 200-foot-long ferry that turned up in Benin bearing the name "Etireno" was freshly painted — with the name "Nordby" still visible beneath, according to the Associated Press.
Onome said the name was changed in 1999, but didn't have documents to prove it, the news organization reported. The ship was carrying 139 passengers, some of whom appeared frightened.
The government of Benin says it will investigate. In the meantime, there are more questions than answers.
"There was a lot of factors that suggested that this is all very legitimate," said Ironside. "This was basically information that came from official sources in Benin, which is why we all took it so seriously. Also, we took it seriously because we know this is a very serious problem throughout the region."
A Global Phenomenon
Watchdog groups and human rights organizations say the case highlights a growing problem.
"The traffic in children as forced laborers is a global phenomenon," said Jesse Sage of the American Anti-Slavery Group. "Whether it is Bangladeshi toddlers trafficked into the United Arab Emirates as camel jockey slaves or Chinese children smuggled into Los Angeles by 'snakehead' criminal gangs, there is a lucrative trade in human beings."
Poverty-stricken parents sometimes sell their children, for the immediate payoff and in the belief that the child would eventually get a paying job, and able to send part of their income back home. Others, he said, are simply abducted off the street, said Sage.
Sage said some 200,000 children in West Africa, and perhaps 10 million worldwide, are part of the slave trade.
But at least for the moment, little is known about the children believed destined for slavery
it appears the ship reportedly carrying hundreds of children of the Etireno, and whether they were destined for slavery — or if they even exist at all.
"At this stage, we don't know what the big picture is," said UNICEF's Ironside.
ABCNEWS Radio contributed to this report.