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A rise in pirate attacks off Nigeria's coast

Turmoil in the oil-rich Niger Delta region is spreading out to sea as gangs in speedboats attack trading ships.

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Rich Clabaugh

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The pirates attacked at night, firing AK-47s at the fishing trawler then clambering aboard from their speedboats.

One bullet hit the chef, who lay wounded in his bunk as the pirates casually ate and slept before stripping the ship of its valuables.

"He was in agony, dying silently like that," Captain Johnson says of the chef, shot during one of many January attacks in southern Nigeria's oil-rich waters.

Nigeria has seen a massive rise in pirate attacks in recent weeks, with officials linking the upsurge to a general decline in security throughout the country's oil-rich Niger Delta region. While piracy has long been a problem off the coast of Somalia in East Africa, the recent attacks here in West Africa mark a new trend that could further cripple the economy of one of the world's poorest regions.

"Before, it was maybe one death every two months or once in a fortnight, but five deaths in five different locations and five different companies?" says Paul Kirubakaran, managing director of the Seabless fishing company, whose boats are among the 200 shrimp and fishing vessels docked in Nigeria's commercial capital since a strike began in January. "When people are killed like this how can we ask them to go back [to sea]?"

Trawler fishermen in the area suffered more than 100 pirate attacks in 2007, and a spike of 50 attacks in the first month of 2008 that culminated in five crew deaths in one day, maritime officials say.

Nigerian trawler workers, some paid less than $40 a month, went on strike at the end of January saying they refuse to put themselves at further risk. Costs for international companies are rising, prices have quadrupled, and the fishing industry that employs tens of thousands of Nigerians is wriggling on the hook.

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