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Piracy on the rise off West Africa's coast

West Africa has seen a sharp increase in the number of pirate attacks off its coast. The goal is not lucrative ransom payments, but fuel, which sells for a large sum on the black market.

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Pirate attacks, previously a back-burner issue in the waters off of West Africa, have spiked in recent months, fueling fears that the illicit activity could threaten oil exports and ultimately hamper growth in the region.

Already this year, there have been 15 reported pirate attacks off the coast of the tiny nation of Benin, an area that saw just one attack between 2006 and 2010, according to data from the International Maritime Bureau. The most recent incident came last weekend, when armed men boarded two Panamanian-registered ships in Benin’s waters. Italian- and Greek-owned diesel tankers were also targeted there last month and one Filipino seaman was killed.

The recent spate of attacks represents “a change of both scale and ferocity” of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, says Steven Jones, the director of Maritime Security Review, a London-based firm.

“Gangs have boarded vessels in order to transfer oil from the tanker into their own small tanker vessels,” Mr. Jones says, adding that in the past, attacks were largely motivated by “petty theft and pilferage.”

“The pirates are believed to be Nigerian, perhaps from just one gang – and their push outwards [toward Benin] is believed to be a direct response to the successes of the Nigerian Navy in their own territorial sea,” Jones added.

Unlike Somalia, where seafaring criminals demand ransoms for the people and goods they hold hostage, pirates in the Gulf of Guinea focus on stealing fuel, which they then sell for hefty sums on the black market.


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