COTONOU, Benin — A ship at the center of an international hunt for scores of suspected child slaves arrived in this West African nation early today, but with no more than a few children on board accompanied by their mothers.
Benin sparked the search for the Nigerian-registered MV Etireno last week when it alerted the world that it believed the vessel was carrying 180 children sold by poor families to work for nothing in oil-rich Gabon.
Benin's social welfare minister, Ramatou Baba-Moussa, suggested that there might have been a mix-up between the Etireno and another Nigerian ship spotted off Equatorial Guinea, which might be carrying Nigerian minors caught up in the illegal trade.
Moussa gave no details of the possible second ship.
"The boat [Etireno] is here. . . . There are 139 passengers, of whom seven are children," she told reporters on board, adding that she was relieved not to discover child slaves.
"There was a situation, and we had to take action. The affair is over. I don't deny that Benin is part of the traffic in children, and the government will do all it can to beat it," she said.
No move was made to arrest or question any of the ship's crew. There was no sign of the Benin businessman Stanislas Abadtan or of at least two other people for whom international arrest warrants had been issued in connection with the trade.
Most of the boat's occupants did not look to be in poor health, and there was little to do for Red Cross workers who had been on standby since last week.
Despite international efforts to curb the trade, child slavery persists in West and Central Africa, from which slave traders shipped millions of people to the Americas between the 16th and 19th centuries.