By Jonathan Saul
LONDON (Reuters) - Somali pirate attacks fell to their lowest in three years in the first nine months of 2012 as tougher navy action and private armed security teams deterred gangs, a maritime watchdog said.
Last year, Somali piracy in the busy shipping lanes of the Gulf of Aden and the northwestern Indian Ocean netted $160 million, and cost the world economy some $7 billion, according to the American One Earth Future foundation.
In the January to September period, attacks involving Somali pirates fell to 70 compared with 199 incidents in the first nine months of last year and was at its lowest since 2009, the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) said on Monday.
Only one ship was targeted by pirates in the third quarter of 2012, the IMB said, adding that piracy off West Africa was increasing however.
"We welcome the successful robust targeting of pirate action groups by international navies in the high risk waters off Somalia, ensuring these criminals are removed before they can threaten ships," IMB director Pottengal Mukundan said.
"It's good news that hijackings are down, but there can be no room for complacency: these waters are still extremely high-risk and the naval presence must be maintained."
International navies have stepped up pre-emptive action against pirates, including strikes on their bases on the Somali coast, and shipping firms are increasingly using armed guards and other measures such as heightened watches and razor wire.
The IMB said the slide in Somali pirate attacks had driven overall global pirate attacks down to 233 incidents, compared with 352 last year with incidents at their lowest since 2008 when there were 199 reported, it said.
War torn Somalia is next to the Gulf of Aden's busy shipping lanes, and poverty has in recent years tempted many young men to take up piracy, storming commercial vessels and holding their crews and cargo to ransom.
Rory Lamrock, an intelligence analyst with security firm AKE, said piracy was a less attractive enterprise for the moment for gangs, but the outlook hinged on security being maintained.
"The gains are all reversible, because the main conditions on the land, such as poverty, insecurity, the distribution of firearms and a lack of institutional development, remain largely unchanged," he said. "If security measures are rescinded it would be very easy for pirate syndicates to resume their activity to similar levels of recent years."
Meanwhile, piracy is on the increase on the other side of Africa in the Gulf of Guinea, an increasingly important source of oil, cocoa and metals for world markets.
The IMB, which has been monitoring global piracy since 1991, said there had been 34 incidents in the January to September period, rising from 30 in the same period last year.
"Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea is becoming increasingly dangerous and has pushed westward from Benin to neighboring Togo," the IMB said. "Attacks are often violent, planned and aimed at stealing refined oil products which can be easily sold on the open market."
(editing by Ron Askew)