Pirates off the coast of Nigeria have kidnapped six Russians and an Estonian during an attack on their ship, Bourbon, the French shipping company operating the vessel said today.
The attack on the Bourbon Liberty 249, an anchor handling vessel, occurred on Monday near the Niger Delta. Another nine sailors on board the vessel sailed safely to the company’s port in Onne in Nigeria’s Rivers state, the French-based oil and gas services company said.
“The emergency unit set up immediately by Bourbon has been set up to aim at their rapid liberation under the safest security conditions,” the company said in its statement.
Bourbon SA has previously been the victim of kidnappers – in September 2010, attackers armed with assault rifles clashed with Nigerian navy forces as they tried to take over an offshore oil platform. They subsequently kidnapped three French Bourbon employees, who were later released.
On October 9, pirates freed a Greek-operated gasoline tanker they had hijacked over the weekend in the Gulf of Guinea. The tanker Orfeas, crewed by two Greeks and 22 Filipinos, was carrying 32,000 metric tonnes of gasoline. All the crew members were safe and in good health.
Pirate attacks are on the rise in the Gulf of Guinea, which is second only to the waters around Somalia for piracy. Fuel ships are a favourite target, and the pirates are usually only interested in the cargo, not the hostages.
Many of the criminal gangs in pirate networks are offshoots from militant groups that used to operate in Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger Delta before they agreed an amnesty in 2009.
In August pirates attacked a Greek-operated oil tanker with a crew of about 20 off the coast of Togo. They released the ship a few days later after stealing 3,000 tonnes of fuel.
Pirate attacks have spiked off the coast of Benin this year while dropping in neighbouring Nigeria, according to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) watchdog, and attacks may also be on the rise in Cameroon to the south.
London’s marine insurance market in August added Benin to its high-risk list, and the vast Gulf of Guinea region could become more risky for shipping, threatening a growing source of oil, metals and agricultural products.
A spokesman for Nigeria’s military Joint Task Force confirmed that intensified patrols and intelligence operations had led to a drop in piracy in Nigeria, causing pirates to spread to neighbouring countries. Authorities had made 30 arrests in the past month, he said.
The International Maritime Bureau (IMB) said there have been 19 pirate attacks off Benin this year, compared with none in 2010. Authorities in Cameroon, just south of Nigeria, have also complained of an increase in pirate attacks since 2010.
Unlike off Somalia, West African pirates tend to focus on stealing cash and cargoes instead of kidnapping for huge ransoms. But experts say there have been cases of West African pirates being paid small ransoms to release crews.
The spread of piracy to new territory in the Gulf of Guinea has underlined the need for regional cooperation on maritime security, analysts and security officials said.
Phillip Heyl, the head of the U.S. Africa Command’s air and maritime programs, said U.S. military support for West African navies and coastguards — which has included training and equipment — was being adjusted.
“In the past, most of our efforts have been bilateral — between us and a particular country,” he told Reuters. “Now we are focusing on a regional basis because the solution is regional. Events are picking up in Benin and Togo because Nigeria is stepping up its enforcement efforts.”
The French military is also boosting cooperation.
Military sources in Benin said France had deployed a surveillance frigate to Benin’s waters at the end of August. The French military is also planning anti-piracy training in Benin and Togo in the coming weeks.
The stakes are high for Benin, which depends on its port in Cotonou for some 40 percent of state revenues. A U.S.-funded program to double the port’s capacity could also be at risk, the U.S. envoy to Benin told Reuters in August.
Benin has asked the United Nations to consider sending an international force to help police the Gulf of Guinea, similar to the NATO and European Union operations to protect shipping from Somali pirates off Africa’s east coast.
It is also in talks with the United States and France over the possible purchase of boats and surveillance planes.
Separately, West African countries are discussing the creation of a regional counter-piracy force.
But concerns are also rising that the pirate gangs could move further west. Officials in Togo and Ghana have said they are boosting maritime security to address the threat.
“We are aware of the increasing piracy attacks in our neighbourhood and we are very much prepared to face any such attacks,” Ghana Defence Minister Joseph Henry Smith told Reuters.
“(…) we have constantly been reviewing our measures to safeguard our waters, most importantly to protect our oil installations.”
J. Peter Pham, Africa director for U.S. think-tank the Atlantic Council, said the pirates have no shortage of possible recruits, including former Nigerian rebels in the wake of a government amnesty.
“The attacks seem to be coming from independent criminal gangs composed mainly of, and certainly led by, Nigerians, with perhaps a smattering of other nationalities,” he said.
“The fact that the much-vaunted Niger Delta amnesty has benefited largely the leadership rather than the middle or lower ranks of insurgents (…) ensures a ready pool of potential recruits for criminal enterprises.”