Paris - Police in five African countries arrested 40 suspected human traffickers and rescued hundreds of victims - including 236 minors - in an exceptionally large-scale Interpol-led operation.
Unusually, most of the suspects are women.
The traffickers lured vulnerable girls and young women into prostitution networks. Other victims were impoverished children whose parents handed them over to people promising them a better life. Instead, they were forced to beg in the streets and deprived of food or clean water or otherwise abused if they didn't bring in enough money, Interpol said.
When they were rescued, "some hadn't taken a shower for two months," Interpol criminal intelligence officer Innocentia Apovo, who coordinated the operation, told The Associated Press.
The suspected traffickers had "little to no regard for working conditions or human life," France-based Interpol said in a statement.
The police operation November 6-10 was carried out simultaneously in Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Senegal.
The victims came from several countries around Africa. The traffickers were from the five countries targeted in the police operation plus Nigeria.
The 40 suspects will face prosecution in the countries where they were arrested, on charges including human trafficking, forced labor and child exploitation.
Aid groups and the International Organization for Migration are working to care for the victims.
One was a 16-year old Nigerian girl seeking work to earn money to care for her family. She was taken on by a "sponsor" in Mali who then forced her into prostitution to reimburse her travel costs, Interpol said.
Seven Nigerian girls saved from traffickers in Mali begged to be sent home after their rescue.
"They didn't want to spend a single day further in Mali, given the ordeal they suffered," Apovo said.
The operation was part of the German government-funded Sahel Project, which targets human trafficking in the region.
Interpol said officials from across the region met after the operation to discuss next steps for the victims and cross-border efforts against trafficking.
The operation allowed police to identify other possible suspects involved in trafficking networks.
"I think they are not far, and we will get to them" too, Apovo said.