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Traffickers threaten Aceh orphans

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Orphaned Sri Lankans cope with trauma after the tsunami.

Indonesian tsunami victims have contaminated water.

A Sri Lankan teacher helped lead dozens to safety.
United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF)
Disasters (General)

(CNN) -- Indonesian authorities have taken steps to protect displaced or orphaned children from traffickers after last week's tsunami disaster, barring people from leaving the country with children under 16 from its hard-hit Aceh province.

Riaz Saehu, the press secretary for the Indonesian Embassy in Washington, said Jakarta was implementing the measure because "the government would like to protect the children" from potential traffickers.

"We are afraid the children can be taken advantage of," he said.

The disaster is believed to have left as many as 13,000 children orphaned in the region.

But John Budd, a spokesman for the U.N. children's fund UNICEF, said it was unclear how many children had lost parents or were only separated from their families.

Budd said the fears have been stoked by reports from relief agencies that criminal gang members in Aceh have been posing as aid workers or parents.

And a couple was arrested on charges of attempting to traffic in children in the city of Medan, which he said was "notorious" for the practice -- "both for adoption and for the sex trade."

In addition, an e-mail message received by a UNICEF worker in Malaysia offered 300 orphans for adoption, promising that "All paperwork will be taken care of," he said.

"To even start talking about orphans at the moment is utterly premature," he said.

UNICEF is working with Indonesia's government to set up child centers in the region to help reunite orphaned children with members of their extended families, he said.

Indonesian officials and aid workers began setting up a registration system for children Tuesday, Budd said.

"The Indonesian government -- the president and vice president, as well as the police here -- are deeply concerned about it, and we're supporting them," he said.

Another UNICEF official, Simon Ingram, said there are indications "traffickers are active" in the tsunami-stricken regions. Asked about Indonesia barring people leaving the country with young Aceh children, he said, "That was a step we were pleased they took."

Ruud Lubbers, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said it is unclear if trafficking is occurring on a large scale, but "we are trying to prevent it."

"We are prepared for this sort of behavior and terrible things, so we are cautious," he said.

UNICEF has launched a four-point plan to save the children in the region:

-- Focusing on basics such as clean water, adequate sanitation, nutrition and routine medical care.

-- Giving a high priority to identifying children who have lost their families, and reuniting them with their extended families and communities.

-- Ensuring the children are protected from child traffickers and sex predators.

-- Helping children cope with the tragedy by getting them back in school as soon as possible and training teachers about signs of severe trauma.

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