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IMB warns of West Africa piracy threat

Beware pirates off African west coastThe International Maritime Bureau (IMB) is asking ships to be extra vigilant when transiting West Africa as piracy in the region becomes a growing concern.

The Bureau’s live piracy map shows that since the beginning of the year, one vessel, MT Kerala, has been hijacked and six have been boarded in West African waters. There was also one attempted attack.

The hijacking of the Liberian-flag product tanker in January by Nigerian pirates has sparked fears that gangs are venturing further south.

In that incident, pirates hijacked the MT Kerala off the coast of Luanda in Angolan waters.

The vessel was released by the pirates eight days later after the cargo was illegally transferred in a ship-to-ship operation along the West African coast.

While the incident shows the willingness of pirate gangs to venture further to commit their crimes, it also raises concern due to the violence associated with hijackings. One crew member was injured while the vessel was being held by pirates.

The IMB warns in its latest annual piracy report of the dangers to ships transiting West African waters particularly around Nigeria, Benin and Togo and urges continued vigilance as the threat remains real, highlighted by the MT Kerala hijacking.

It further points to the fact that because pirates have never attacked so far south, it is likely vessels in the area are not aware of the danger.

Last year the number of Nigerian piracy attacks grew and it currently stands at its highest level since 2008. Nigerian pirates accounted for 31 of the 51 attacks reported in the region in 2013 and West Africa as a whole made up 19% of attacks worldwide last year.

The common tactics employed by gangs operating in the area is to hijack a vessel for its cargo, normally gas or oil. However in the process, crew members are also injured and in some instances kidnapped, and vessels fired upon.

According to a recent report by the United Nations titled Maritime Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, a lot of the piracy affecting West Africa is a product of the criminal activity associated with the region’s oil sector.

“A large share of the recent piracy attacks targeted vessels carrying petroleum products. These vessels are attacked because there is a booming black market for fuel in West Africa. Without this ready market there would be little point in attacking these vessels,” the report said.

The attacks are damaging Nigeria’s lucrative oil industry as analysts point out the hijackings of tankers for oil cargoes could increase the risk of doing business in the country.

One Nigerian Navy official recently said the country was losing $1.5 billion a month to maritime crime, which includes piracy, smuggling and bunkering fraud.

Two attacks have taken place within a week in the Gulf of Guinea resulting in the kidnapping of six crewmembers, Dryad Maritime has reported. On March 4, MV Prince Joseph 1 was attacked offshore Akwa Ibom state, Nigeria, closely followed by an attack on the offshore tug, MV Asha Deep a day later off Bayelsa state; a particular hotspot for recent incidents.

These most recent attacks make this the largest surge over a three month period since Dryad’s records began with eight vessels attacked and 20 crew members kidnapped, the company said, estimating that 12 crew members remain in captivity.

Ian Millen, Dryad Maritime’s Director of Intelligence said: “The two incidents this week point to the operation of at least two separate criminal gangs, using the cover of estuaries and the riverine system of the Niger Delta to take their victims into captivity. If recent patterns are followed, it is likely that the latest attacks will have targeted senior crew, such as the Master and Chief Engineer, as these are the most likely to attract higher value ransom payments, often due to the fact that a large number will be non-Nigerian. This is based on previous intelligence which has seen such crew being singled out, especially ships’ Captains and Chief engineers.”

Pirates have also struck beyond the shores of Nigeria in the last three months with kidnaps of crew members from vessels in the seas off Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea. In addition to this, Dryad assesses that a number of other unsuccessful attacks have probably been aimed at kidnap. In one probable attempt last year, a vessel was targeted some 160 nautical miles out to sea.

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