Thursday, November 26, 2009

Experts: Nigerian pirates may be extending reach

JOHANNESBURG (AP) - A bloody pirate attack off Benin's coast is raising concerns that Nigerian pirates - operating on the opposite side of Africa from Somali pirates - are extending their reach and shows that the waters off West Africa are almost equally dangerous, a maritime expert said.

Pirates attacked an oil tanker Tuesday, killing a Ukrainian sailor and wounding at least two crew members on the Liberian-flagged Cancale Star, said Benin's naval chief, Maxime Ahoyo. He said the tanker had 24 crew members, mostly Ukrainian and that some pirates were from neighboring Nigeria. They did not gain control of the ship, Ahoyo said.

The ship's Hamburg, Germany-based owner, Chemikalien Seetransport, said the crew captured one of the alleged pirates and turned him over to authorities in the port of Cotonou in Benin.

A mix of poverty, politics and easy cash have made Nigeria and Somalia almost equally dangerous for shipping, Cyrus Mody of the London-based International Maritime Bureau told The Associated Press on Wednesday. He said there are possibly as many attacks off Nigeria as near Somalia, but incidents off West Africa are reported far less often.

Mody said his organization received reports of 40 attacks in Nigeria in 2008 and 23 reports this year of attacks in Nigeria, but believes there were many more. In comparison, there were 111 attacks by Somali pirates in 2008 and 202 so far this year, according to the International Maritime Bureau.

The waters around Nigeria get heavy traffic from oil tankers, cargo ships, reefers and tugs, and Mody said all are known to have been attacked. But he said Tuesday's attack was a surprise because he could not recall previous attacks off Benin.

"If it was somebody from Benin who has done it then it is concerning, but if it is the Nigerian pirates who are extending their reach then it is still concerning because they are going out farther than they used to," Mody said.

Mody said the underreporting of pirate attacks off Nigeria may be due to local vessels fearing more serious reprisals if they report the hijackings or owners not wanting increased insurance premiums.

Pirates operating out of the failed state of Somalia have mounted a series of daring attacks that included the seizure of a ship loaded with tanks, a Saudi Arabian supertanker, and a shipment of food aid crewed by 20 Americans.

In Nigeria, the allure of piracy is enhanced by oil-company traffic in the oil-rich Niger Delta.

"The Somalis are more into the hijacking of the entire vessel, crew, cargo, everything," Mody said, adding that Nigerian pirates instead often make off with oil workers who are held for ransom and leave the vessels and their crew behind.

The problem in both countries stems from poverty, pollution and politics. In Somalia, poor fishermen first started attacking large foreign trawlers they blamed for devastating the local fish stocks and ships they believed were dumping toxic waste on their shores.

In Nigeria, angry communities targeted employees of the oil giants who polluted their rivers with spilled oil and flared excess gas produced when drilling.

But in both countries, the political message became muddied after ship owners and employers offered large sums of cash for the freedom of their workers and vessels. The influx of cash into impoverished communities encouraged pirates who went after ransoms.



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