Child Slave Ship Feared Adrift Off West Africa

Up and down the western coast of Africa, the hunt is on for a ship believed to be carrying as many as 250 children destined for slavery.

The ship was turned away from several African ports over the past three weeks, and has since disappeared.

Authorities say the crew is now desperate to unload their cargo without being caught. And one way to do that, they fear, is by dumping their human cargo into the sea.

The aging and decrepit Nigerian-registered vessel, MV Etirino, left Benin's capital, Cotonou, on March 30 with its suspected human cargo, bound for Libreville in oil-rich Gabon.

But it was turned away from Gabon, when authorities suspected the crew was planning to sell the children.

On Thursday, it tried to make port in Douala, Cameroon, but was also turned away.

Benin authorities expected the boat to return to Cotonou on Sunday, after making a round trip of more than 1,200 miles. But port officials say it has not been responding to calls and has not tried to make contact with Benin's authorities.

On the Edge

The apparently desperate situation has raised alarm bells locally and globally. Adam Zakaria, a child protection officer with UNICEF in Cotonou said he had received calls from reporters in Africa, Asia, Europe and Americas about the incident.

Although child slavery is a commonly recognized problem in the region, Zakaria said he had never heard of as many children being transported.

He was also worried because the children had been in the boat for such a long time. "Children are not supposed to live in a boat for two three weeks," he said. "That is not normal."

There were fears that the passengers may not have enough food or water. Aid workers told Reuters news service that police in Douala, Cameroon, the last people to see the ship, said some children on board were sick.

But that's not the worst that could happen to the children. Authorities have announced that the captain of the ship has a criminal record in Nigeria, raising fears that the children could be thrown overboard.

Benin has issued arrest warrants for the ship's Nigerian owner, captain and crew as well as three local businessmen.

"Every situation in the past shows these people are very very bad people," Zakaria said. "They can do things you cannot imagine to children."

Hide-and-Seek

There were unconfirmed reports that the ship was near Malabo, the capital of Equatorial Guinea, and little more than 60 miles from Douala, where the Etireno left Thursday.

Port authorities in Malabo told Reuters they were not aware of the presence of the boat. In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher also said the ship's whereabouts were currently unknown.

Nevertheless, Benin has appealed to Western nations to help in a search. The government says it does not have enough of a naval presence to perform interceptions. Reports say Benin's entire naval fleet comprises five small patrol boats, which are often in poor repair.

Local U.N. officials told The Associated Press they do not have resources on hand to conduct a search.

But UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy said once the ship had landed somewhere, the organization could provide some assistance in reunifying the children with their families.

"The secretary has made it clear to all of us that we should do everything possible to assist in this situation. We have our embassies working hard on it," she said.

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