Police in Senegal say they have intercepted a ship and its passengers who are believed to be Senegalese migrants trying to reach Europe.  Naomi Schwarz reports from Dakar police say they are investigating what they say may be an organized network smuggling illegal migrants.

Police in the north of Senegal's Casamance region intercepted a boat Tuesday off the coast near The Gambia. They reportedly acted on information received from the European Union's new border protection agency.

According to police, the 90 passengers were Senegalese nationals attempting to get to Spain illegally via the Canary Islands. The crew and passengers were all arrested, as were 13 others in nearby boats who may have been involved.

Tens of thousands of West Africans have attempted the risky sea journey to the Canary Islands during the past couple of years.  Most of them were in small traditional wooden fishing boats, called pirogues.

Police Spokesman, Colonel Alioune Ndiaye says this boat was a much larger, modern cargo ship.

Ndiaye says police are investigating whether this means Senegal is seeing a new phase in the smuggling business.

He says until now the Senegalese police have seen only very small organizations of perhaps two or three local fisherman with a pirogue who attempted to ferry passengers to the Canaries.

But with this much larger ship, staffed by an international crew, Colonel Ndiaye says a larger network of brokers and smugglers may have arranged for the ship to make the journey.  But he says he cannot confirm the existence of such an organization.

Would-be migrants often pay large sums of cash to the boat captains or brokers who help them find a boat going to the Canaries.

Another man called Alioune Ndiaye, who was one of the passengers on the intercepted Gambian ship, says his whole family helped him raise the money to pay for his passage.

Ndiaye says his brothers and mother all put in money to help him go abroad because they hoped he would get a good job in Spain and be able to send them money back in Senegal.

Local journalist Alpha Jallow spoke to policemen on the scene.  He says police told him they are waiting for file charges.

"During the course of the investigation maybe those arrested might reveal some very big names," Jallow said. "Because the police said they know that there might be some big people behind this whole business."

Jallow says he has heard reports that some of these trips are organized by big players in Senegal's capital, Dakar, and the details are carried out by agents in Casamance and nearby Guinea-Bissau.  Police were unable to confirm these details, saying they did not want to jeopardize an ongoing investigation.