By Jonathan Saul
LONDON (Reuters) - Vigorous action by navies including pre-emptive strikes helped cut global pirate attacks by almost a third in the first quarter of this year although Nigerian gangs escalated hijackings in West African waters, a maritime watchdog said.
Lured by tens of millions of dollars in ransom payments, Somali pirates continue to threaten vital shipping lanes in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean. Despite successful efforts to quell attacks, international naval forces have limited resources and vast distances to patrol.
The International Maritime Bureau (IMB), which has been monitoring piracy worldwide since 1991, said global reported pirate attacks totaled 102 incidents in the first quarter, down from 142 in the same period last year. Somali pirates accounted for nearly half the attacks in the first quarter of this year.
"The reduction in overall attacks is primarily attributed to the disruptive actions and pre-emptive strikes by the navies in the region," the IMB said. "This emphasizes the importance of the navies in deterring and combating Somali piracy."
The IMB said the deployment of private armed security guards and greater use of pirate deterrents such as razor wire, heightened monitoring watches when entering danger areas by crews on board vessels had also helped curb Somali attacks.
It said Somali attacks had spread and have been reported at as far as Mozambique and the Seychelles as well as off Kenya, Tanzania, the Arabian Sea, off Oman and the west coast of India and the western Maldives.
NIGERIAN PIRACY INCREASING
Moves by the European Union to expand its anti-piracy mission to target pirate weaponry ashore was a welcome move that "could further threaten the Somali piracy model", it added.
"Somali pirates are dangerous and are prepared to fire their automatic weapons and RPG (rocket propelled grenades) at vessels in order to stop them," it said.
"There is no evidence to suggest that the danger from Somali piracy is likely to go away in the short to medium term unless further actions are taken against this criminal phenomenon," it said.
West Africa also remained a worsening piracy hotspot. Attacks in the Gulf of Guinea have increased in recent months as the area, spanning a dozen countries, is a growing source of oil, cocoa and metals being shipped to the world's markets.
The IMB said attacks off Nigeria reached 10 in the first quarter the same number reported for the whole of 2011. A further attack in neighboring Benin was also attributed to Nigerian gangs.
"Nigerian piracy is increasing in incidence and extending in range," said IMB director Pottengal Mukundan. "While the number of reported incidents in Nigeria is still less than Somalia, and hijacked vessels are under control of the pirates for days rather than months, the level of violence against crew is dangerously high."
Elsewhere, the IMB said there had been a noticeable increase in the number of armed robbery attacks in the Indonesian archipelago, rising to 18 incidents in the first quarter, from five in the same period last year.
"All types of vessels have been targeted and five crew members taken hostage. These attacks are aimed at theft from vessels," the IMB said.