DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — More ships and sailors fell prey to pirates off West Africa last year than off Somalia's coast, long the lair of pirates, according to a new report that highlights the risk posed by the rise in attacks on vessels in the Gulf of Guinea.
The report drawing on data from the International Maritime Bureau said nearly 1,000 seafarers and fishermen were attacked by pirates armed with guns or knives in the Gulf of Guinea last year, and that 800 of them were aboard vessels that were overtaken by pirates. More than 200 were taken hostage.
The annual report on the human cost of piracy had not previously examined the Gulf of Guinea, but its authors say reported attacks on commercial ships have become more frequent and are now occurring across a broader geographic area. Pirates in the region are aided by weak naval and coast guard protection as well as a lack of awareness about the threats they pose, the report said.
By contrast, the number of seafarers fired upon off Somalia's coast plummeted from 3,853 in 2011 to 851 last year. The report attributed that decline to factors including the role being played by international navies and the increased presence of armed security aboard ships.
Many pirates in West Africa have roots in militant groups formerly operating in Nigeria's oil-rich Niger Delta, according to the report. They tend to be more violent and have greater access to, and familiarity with, sophisticated weapons.
One sailor interviewed for the report said hired security were no match for the pirates. "They had a soldier guarding our vessel. It happens in daytime, but during the night, they are actually hiding," the sailor said. "When we ask them why they hide, their answer is simple. 'The weapons of rebels and pirates are stronger.'"
While pirates off Somalia focus on hijacking vessels and holding crews for ransom, pirates in West Africa are involved in a range of crimes including cargo theft, said Ian Millen, director of intelligence for Dryad Maritime in the United Kingdom.
"There is no real international response to the problem and regional naval capabilities are very limited," Millen said.
He said it would likely be a long time before a coordinated response to piracy in West Africa was put in place. Meanwhile, the frequency of attacks off Somalia's coast has caused a shift in the way shipping is conducted there, with maritime companies taking ever greater precautions, like adding armed guards aboard commercial vessels. That level of protection is out-of-bounds in West Africa, Millen said.
"In West Africa, the regulatory restrictions imposed by the regional nations, notably Nigeria, Benin and Togo, make it impossible for international private security companies to operate in the way they do in the east," he said.
The cost of piracy in West Africa totaled up to $950 million last year, the report said.