By Jonathan Saul and Mark John
LONDON/DAKAR (Reuters) - Pirate attacks on ships in the Gulf of Guinea are threatening one of the world's emerging trade hubs and are likely to intensify unless the region's weak naval and coastguard defences are beefed up soon.
Stretching from Guinea on Africa's northwestern tip down to Angola in the south, the Gulf spans a dozen countries and is a growing source of oil, cocoa and metals to the world's markets.
While piracy has yet to hit levels seen off Somalia's coast,
analysts say pirates have spotted a window of opportunity with weak local maritime security structures and a craggy coastline which offers natural hideouts from which to mount attacks.
"Piracy in West Africa is fundamentally different to Somali piracy as the perpetrators are interested in stealing cargoes rather than demanding ransoms," said Paul Gibbins of maritime security company Protection Vessels International (PVI).
"It is reasonable to assume that the problem is likely to escalate if there are no resources to help police and control the situation," he added.
Despite NATO and European Union operations to protect local shipping, there were 163 attempted or actual attacks by Somali pirates in the first half of this year, according to International Maritime Bureau.
That compares with just 27 reported incidents in Gulf of Guinea states such as Nigeria, Benin, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Ghana and Democratic Republic of Congo during the same period.
KEEPING IT QUIET
But that may be only the tip of the iceberg.
Because many of the attacks take place within national waters, they are not deemed "acts of piracy" under international law and so are not catalogued as such.
Moreover, the fact that a distress call will not elicit a rescue by a Western warship is seen dissuading many ship owners from reporting an attack, fearing the unwanted side-effect of seeing their insurance premiums rise.
"In Nigeria it is estimated that approximately 60 percent of pirate attacks go unreported," said John Drake, a senior risk consultant with security firm AKE.
Pirates have operated in the Gulf of Guinea since the 1980s at least, but there has been a rise in attacks in the past year.
The attack this week on an Italian tanker carrying diesel fuel off the coast of Benin -- which has already seen 15 such incidents since the start of the year -- highlighted the chronic lack of combat resources in the region.
Benin naval commander Maxime Ahoyo said the July 24 attack occurred outside the range of the local security systems and authorities lost contact with the ship, whose crew was released Thursday.
"It used to be Nigeria. If they are coming to Benin, it's because they have spotted there is a security weakness," said Ahoyo of an apparent shift -- disputed by some observers -- of criminal activity from Benin's larger eastern neighbor.
PVI's Gibbins said neither Benin nor its equally small western neighbor Togo had internationally recognized offshore combat facilities, despite the fact that between them they host two of the region's busiest ports -- Cotonou and Lome.
UNDER THEIR NOSES
Aside from the increased risk to shipping, the impact on the local economies of the region is often underestimated.
"The majority of attacks are carried out against local vessels and mariners," said J. Peter Pham, Africa director with U.S. think tank the Atlantic Council.
"It threatens vital fisheries as well as regional trade, while the reduction in hydrocarbon and other primary export revenue deprives governments of potential resources for development," he added.
Cameroon has blamed attacks on ships off its coast for part of a steady drop in its modest oil output but the impact on total Gulf of Guinea production of three million barrels a day -- the bulk from Nigeria -- is hard to quantify.
Despite including many of the world's most impoverished and volatile countries, the region is still far the near total breakdown in law and authority which has allowed piracy to flourish along the coast of Somalia.
Yet there are fears that if governments are unable or unwilling to ensure their citizens share in any future wealth, the temptation to take a slice of the goods passing under their noses on the way to the richer world may prove irresistible for some.
"West Africa is seeing significant economic growth, with oil discoveries being made off the coast of countries beyond Nigeria," said AKE's Drake.
"If coastal communities feel that they are excluded from any resultant wealth they will have higher intent to target the shipping which will pass by them."
(Additional reporting by Samuel Elijah in Cotonou; Writing by Mark John; Editing by Giles Elgood)