Bissau - Guinea-Bissau said on Sunday it had dismantled a criminal network trafficking children to the Gambia, where they are forced by Islamic schools to beg on the streets.
Police in the southern port of Buba uncovered the smuggling ring when they stopped two trucks carrying 61 children aged as young as four, Maria Inacia Gomes, of the state-run Institute of Mother and Child, told a news conference in Bissau.
"These children were heading for [the] Gambia, where there are Qur'anic schools all over the place, and they are often sent to beg in the streets," Gomes added.
Three men suspected of trafficking the children were arrested, police said, while several others, including village chiefs and religious leaders, are also thought to be involved in the network.
In Muslim-majority Gambia, where religious leaders have enormous social and political power, children have long been entrusted to teachers known as marabouts who educate them in residential Qur'anic schools, called daaras.
But research by Human Rights Watch (HRW) has shown that in many daaras, marabouts are using education as a cover to send the children out to beg, inflicting severe physical and psychological abuse on those who fail to meet daily quotas.
The practice was described in a 2010 report by HRW as "akin to slavery".
UN's children's organisation UNICEF estimates that around 100 000 boys - known as talibes - are forced to beg on the streets of Senegal and Gambia.
Unicef spokesperson Abubacar Sultan told the news conference many of the children discovered in Buba were sick or very weak and that initial enquiries had revealed most were from poor families.
"We have put them in an environment that will enable a speedy recovery. They are now under the protection of the United Nations, pending completion of the investigation," he added.
"All those who are involved in this practice will be brought to justice," Guinea-Bissau police chief Francisco N'dur Djata told reporters.