By Jonathan Saul
LONDON (Reuters) - Armed hijackers pose a growing threat off Nigeria's oil-rich coast, where commercial ships do not enjoy the protection of naval security that has dramatically reduced Somali piracy on the other side of Africa.
The Gulf of Guinea region, which includes Nigeria, is an increasingly important source of oil, cocoa and metals for world markets, although international navies are not actively engaged in counter-piracy missions in the region at present.
Unlike waters off Somalia and the Horn of Africa, where ships can transit past at high speed with armed guards on board, many vessels are forced to anchor off Nigeria with little in the way of protection, making them a soft target for criminals.
Pirate attacks on ships around Nigeria rose to 11 incidents in the first quarter versus 10 in the same period last year, watchdog the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) said on Monday.
"The Gulf of Guinea represents an area of concern," the IMB said in its latest report. "Nigeria accounted for 11 incidents in the region. Guns were reported in at least nine of these attacks," said the IMB, monitoring global piracy since 1991.
In the overall Gulf of Guinea, 15 incidents were recorded in the first quarter versus 19 in the same period last year, although those in 2012 had included single attacks in Benin and the Democratic Republic of Congo, IMB data showed.
"The Gulf of Guinea presents the most complex maritime security environment for commercial vessels today, due to the range of attacks from smash and grab robberies to hijackings and abductions," said Rory Lamrock, intelligence analyst with security firm AKE.
"Hijacking an entire tanker to steal its fuel cargo is a far more efficient criminal business model than the Somali style of hijacking for ransom. Attackers can see a substantial financial return within a week if a pre-arranged buyer for the stolen cargo is found in West Africa. In comparison, Somali ransom payments regularly take over a year to negotiate."
Unlike in the case of Somalia, which has lacked functioning government for two decades, West African states have been wary of allowing international navies to operate close to their territorial waters because of sovereignty sensitivities.
Despite worsening violence off Nigeria, overall global pirate attacks declined in the first quarter with 66 incidents reported, versus 102 in the same period last year, the IMB said.
It said the drop was driven by a lower degree of hijackings by Somali pirates on the eastern side of Africa.
The number of attacks involving Somali gangs fell to five incidents in the first three months versus 43 in the first three months of 2012, IMB data showed.
Prompted by soaring costs for shippers, including insurance and the safety of their crews, international navies have stepped up pre-emptive action against the pirates, such as strikes on their bases on the Somali coast.
Shipping firms are also increasingly using guards and other measures such as razor wire and better monitoring.
"The drop in reported attacks is due to pro-active naval actions against suspect pirate action groups, the employment of privately contracted armed security personnel and the preventive measures used by the merchant vessels," IMB director Pottengal Mukundan said.
"The attacks will rise to past levels if the naval presence is reduced or vessels relax their vigilance."
The annual report by the Oceans Beyond Piracy advocacy group published last week estimated the cost of piracy at $5.7-6.1 billion in 2012.
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)