The wives of two prominent politicians have been arrested in Niger following the dismantling of an alleged baby-trafficking ring this week, a police source said Wednesday.
More than 20 suspects were arrested on Monday as part of an international investigation involving police from Nigeria, Benin and Niger, the source told AFP.
Those arrested were "mostly women," and included one of the wives of Niger's former prime minister and current Parliament Speaker Hama Amadou, who is seen as the main challenger to President Mahamadou Issoufou in elections due in 2016.
The wife of Agriculture Minister Abdou Labo was also detained.
Eighteen of the suspects were later charged with offences including fraudulently assigning the babies' maternity, a judicial source said.
Thirteen others were said to have been acquitted. The babies are thought to have arrived in Niger from Nigeria via Benin.
"The trafficking network is used primarily by couples who are unable to have children," a source close to the case told AFP.
Health workers and employees at the birth registry office were also detained. Some suspects were referred to the public prosecutor on Wednesday, the police source said.
"Baby factories" — private clinics where young girls sell their newborns to couples who are unable to conceive — are regularly dismantled in Nigeria.
Cases in which mothers give up babies born from rape have been reported at such clinics, but young women facing unwanted pregnancies are more common, according to the Nigerian authorities.
The newborns are sold for several thousand euros — with boys fetching more than girls. The mothers receive around 150 euros ($200).
The impoverished country of Niger has the biggest birth rate in the world, an average of 7.6 children per woman.
In 2012, Niger police uncovered a fake orphanage where babies were sold, some for use in black-magic rituals.