BANGKOK, Thailand – Thai police said Wednesday that a German man sought in the disappearance of a 12-year-old Swedish tsunami (search) victim has been cleared after police questioning.
A child matching the description of the Swedish boy went missing from a hospital in Thailand (search) a day after the tsunami struck. Media reported that he may have been kidnapped. He was last seen with an unidentified foreign man leaving the hospital.
Stephan Kaley of Germany voluntarily submitted to a police interview after hearing reports that a boy matching the description of 12-year-old Kristian Walker (search) may have been snatched from a hospital, police Sgt. Vichai Boonruen said.
Vichai said police had confirmed Kaley's account that he helped reunite two German boys with their parents and a Swedish youth with his mother.
"We have ruled out the theory that this man kidnapped anyone," Vichai said.
Fearing child-trafficking gangs will exploit the chaos of the tsunami disaster, Indonesia has placed restrictions on youngsters leaving the country, ordered police commanders to be on the lookout for trafficking and posted special guards in refugee camps.
In Thailand, Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai said Tuesday that his government was working closely with hospitals to prevent human trafficking gangs from taking advantage of the situation, although he stressed that there was no firm indication that they were.
UNICEF and other child welfare groups warn that the gangs — who are well-established in Indonesia — may be whisking orphaned children into trafficking networks, selling them into forced labor or even sexual slavery in wealthier neighboring countries such as Malaysia and Singapore.
Walker and his mother have been missing since the tsunami hit Thailand. His grandfather, American Daniel Walker of Vero Beach, Fla., had been going around with photos of Kristian, and doctors at Taimuang hospital in badly hit Phang Nga province said they had seen a boy who looked like him come in for treatment for water in his ears.
Lt. Col. Preecha Klaewthanong, chief investigator of the case, said Kaley lives close to the hospital and apparently had been helping out during the tragedy.
Kristian had been on vacation with his mother Madeleine, brother David, 14, and sister Anna, 7. His siblings were found and returned to Sweden.
On Wednesday, UNICEF spokesman John Budd, based in Banda Aceh, said the group had two confirmed reports of attempted child trafficking but he did not immediately provide further details.
Fueling the suspicions, many Indonesians have received mobile phone text messages this week inviting them to adopt orphans from Aceh. The police are investigating the messages. It's not clear whether they are pranks, real adoption offers or linked to trafficking networks.
But child welfare experts warn the messages could be a sign that children are being removed from the province, reducing their chances of being reunited with relatives or surviving parents.
"I'm sure it's happening," said Birgithe Lund-Henriksen, child protection chief in UNICEF's Indonesia office. "It's a perfect opportunity for these guys to move in."
The threat of trafficking appears more serious in Indonesia, probably because the scale of destruction is greatest there and the territory more remote, UNICEF director Carol Bellamy told The Associated Press.
The hardest-hit area in Indonesia — Aceh — is close to the port city of Medan and nearby island of Batam, which are well-known transit points for gangs shipping children and teenagers out of Indonesia.
"This is a situation that lends itself to this kind of exploitation," Bellamy said.