There was growing concern last night about the fate of dozens, possibly hundreds, of children held on a slave ship that has gone missing off the west coast of Africa. The Nigerian-registered MV Etireno was transporting the children from Benin to work on plantations in Gabon. But the ship was turned away from two ports when its cargo was discovered and its whereabouts are now unknown.
The authorities in Benin estimate there are 180 children on board. The UN children's agency, Unicef, says it fears for the safety of the young people on the MV Etireno and what the captain now intends to do with them.
"We are very worried about the welfare of these children," said Unicef's representative in Benin, Esther Guluma. "These children were destined to work on plantations in Gabon. Now they cannot go there, we are very worried about what the people who are holding them on the ship intend to do with them and the conditions they are in."
An ambulance and medical crew wait outside the Harbormasters office in Cotonou, Benin, Sunday April 15, 2001, for the possible arrival of children from the MV Etireno, a decrepid vessel suspected of carrying child slaves, believed to be drifting off western Africa on Sunday as authorities sought the arrest of suspects from several countries. U.N. officials have said the ship could contain 100-250 children. (AP Photo/Christian Erick)
There is concern that the ship will secretly dock somewhere else and dump the children ashore to avoid problems with the authorities back in Benin, or sell them into slavery with new buyers. The UN has also said it fears the captain may try to dump the children overboard at sea to remove any evidence against him.
The Etireno took on fuel during its last stop, in Cameroon, but the port authorities say the ship had only limited food supplies. Conditions were said to be very unsanitary.
The police in Cameroon told aid workers that some of the children were quite ill after what should have been a four-day journey turned into more than a fortnight's sailing over 1,250 miles.
The vessel loaded the children - believed to be aged as young as nine - in Cotonou, Benin, about a fortnight ago. It sailed for Gabon, where they were destined for forced work on plantations. But when the Gabonese authorities discovered the cargo, they refused the vessel permission to dock.
The ship headed for Cameroon in the hope of selling the children there. Officials again refused to allow them to be unloaded but did allow the vessel to refuel.
The governments of Gabon and Cameroon have not explained why they did not detain the vessel and free the children as they would have been entitled to do under national and international law.
The Nigerian captain filed sailing plans in Cameroon claiming that his destination was Benin, the children's homeland. That journey should take no more than two days, and the ship was expected to arrive on Saturday. But it has not been seen or made radio contact since.
Over the past five years, the MV Etireno has been a regular visitor to Benin - one of the world's poorest countries - to load children sold into slavery. Many are destined for relatively prosperous, oil-rich Gabon or Ivory Coast with its cocoa plantations. Others end up as servants in the homes of the rich in Libreville or Lagos.
Benin says it has alerted neighbouring governments to detain the ship. One possibility is that it will head for its home port of Lagos.
The authorities in Benin have also named a local businessman they are seeking for allegedly buying the children and arranging transport on board the Etireno. The social protection minister, Ramatou Baba Moussa, said the man concerned, Staneslas Abatan, was in Gabon awaiting the arrival of the ship.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001