Maritime agency sounds West Africa piracy alarm

A spate of ship hijackings off West Africa indicates the region could emerge as a new piracy “hotspot”, a global maritime watchdog warned on Wednesday after a Cyprus-flagged tanker went missing.

The tanker was reported missing at 1.20am GMT on Wednesday after it transferred oil to another vessel off Cotonou in Benin, said the International Maritime Bureau’s Kuala Lumpur-based piracy reporting centre, which did not name the ship.

The region has seen a marked increase in hijackings this year, with 18 vessels attacked since March in an area where no incidents were reported in 2010, said Noel Choong, head of the piracy centre.

“These are heavily armed attacks and not just simple thefts, they also steal the crew’s property and the ship’s cargo as well,” Choong said.

The waters off tiny Benin appear to have become particularly risky due to the country’s weak enforcement capabilities, he added.

“It also looks like it will become a hotspot as neighbouring Nigerian authorities have increased patrols in their waters while authorities in Benin lack the assets and resources to secure their waters,” he said.

Brave pirates
Choong said all contact had been lost with the Cyprus-flagged tanker and the piracy centre suspected it had been hijacked. The other vessel, which was Norwegian-registered, was still at the scene awaiting the arrival of authorities, he said.

Choong said he did not yet have more detailed information on the two ships.

Pirates in the area were forcing the captains of hijacked ships to radio authorities that all was fine, delaying responses by naval patrols and compounding the difficulty of deterring attacks, he added.

The International Maritime Bureau warned in July that attacks on the world’s seas were soaring as more heavily armed pirates become increasingly emboldened, seizing more ships than before and taking even bigger risks.

The first six months of 2011 saw 266 piracy attacks globally, compared with 196 over the same period last year, it said.

Most were carried out off East Africa in the Gulf of Aden by Somali pirates, who staged 163 attacks up to July, compared to 100 in the first half of 2010.

Heavier arms
But the West African hijackings were causing increasing worry among shipping companies and oil firms, Choong said.

In June, heavily armed pirates hijacked a Greek tanker in the area, ransacking the vessel and its cargo before abandoning the ship.

A month earlier, a Philippine seaman was found dead on board his chemical tanker, four days after the vessel was attacked by pirates off Benin.

The bureau’s July report on global piracy warned that hijackers, who in the past often wielded only knives, were increasingly armed with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.

However, it also said hijackers were seeing a lower success rate in actually taking over ships, due to the vigilance of international anti-piracy naval forces operating in the Gulf of Aden. — AFP

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