Mother makes appeal for missing daughter

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The Independent Online

Fringed with dense, gorgeous woodland, Lac de Caniel park, near Dieppe, is the perfect spot at which to catch a light breeze, and shake off the heat of high summer.

Yesterday, the mother of a London schoolgirl, Bunmi Shagaya, 11, stood on Caniel lake's tiny man-made beach, where her daughter was last seen on Monday afternoon. The sound of Salimata Shagaya's sobbing was carried by the sought-after breeze, as she clung to Bunmi's two aunts and her cousin, trying to take in the disappearance of her daughter on the first full day of a five-day school trip to France, her first trip abroad.

In a statement issued through the British embassy, Mrs Shagaya made a desperate plea for any information about her daughter, who is feared drowned or abducted. "We are also appealing to anyone who has Bunmi in their care ­ please bring her back to her family," she said. "The family is missing her and feeling great pain that she has been missing for two days. It is not the same without her."

The Shagaya family wanted to join the search but the French police, who brought in 80 extra officers yesterday, advised that their presence might hinder operations. So mother, aunts and cousin spent most of the day at a secret address, just waiting for news and for the arrival of Bunmi's father, already on his way from Nigeria to France. The British embassy has refused to be drawn on whether the Shagaya family blames teachers for Bunmi's disappearance.

Scenes at the lake ­ the centrepiece of a nature park and leisure centre, fashioned nine years ago from a disused quarry ­ verged on the surreal yesterday. One might have expected the water skiing and sailing to stop, or the garish orange pedalos at least to be docked while the lake, dotted with pink water lilies, and dancing with dragonflies, was dredged and searched.

Instead, scores of families with little children watched curiously on the lake's banks just feet from the police divers who were churning up thick, clinging green weed, and from the police dogs sniffing tall, dense reeds along the shoreline.

Helicopters roared overhead and inflatable police speedboats shot up and down the water, but all day the park still swarmed with children.

If Bunmi has drowned, presumably the French children risked witnessing the discovery of her body. But they even swam at the spot where Bunmi went missing, right up until late afternoon when the sand was finally cleared so that two of Bunmi's teachers and a boy classmate could point out to police where the little girl was last seen and where her bag, towel and shoes were later found.

The little boy had seen Bunmi at around 3.30pm. When the children boarded their bus half an hour later she had vanished. It was from Bunmi's discarded belongings that the police dogs were able to pick up her scent.

In Dieppe, 25km away, Bunmi's 40 schoolmates from Hillmead primary in Brixton, south London, were holed up in the little Relais Gambetta hotel. Its curtains and shutters were firmly shut.

"The children are very upset," said a teacher who came to the front door. "I don't know if they are going home today. Some are being questioned by police." Police later said they were speaking to the children through translators and that some were in shock.

Drowning is the French police's number one theory, although Bunmi's uncle, Hammed Ajanaku, contradicted their claim that the little girl could not swim. "She loved swimming," he said, at the family home in Brixton yesterday crowded with relatives and friends waiting for news.

Last night the gendarmerie released without charge a man in his 40s who had been arrested for allegedly exposing himself to a girl in the area by the lake while sitting in his van late on Monday night.

At the back of the police's minds must lurk the criticism of their handling of the disappearance of Caroline Dickinson, aged 13, from Cornwall, who was raped and suffocated in a hostel on a school trip to Brittany in 1996.

Police captain Jean-Marc Cruciani said the man, in his 40s, was in custody while his story and movements were checked out. "But he is not a suspect at the moment because there is no link between this indecent exposure and the disappearance of Bunmi Shagaya," added Mr Cruciani.

Yesterday, a spokesman for Lac de Caniel park said no child had drowned in the nine years since it had opened. He said two lifeguards in high chairs had been monitoring the tiny ­ but crowded ­ beach when Bunmi disappeared.

"Every hot day we have thousands here and one child always goes missing, but they are found within the hour," said the spokesman.

He added that a child could not simply stray from the park because it is ringed by a fence. She would have to leave deliberately or be forced to go.

The possibility of Bunmi running away is seen as remote. Her family and school say she is a happy, well-adjusted girl. And when she was last seen, she was only wearing a swimsuit.