By Joe Bavier
25 NAUTICAL MILES SOUTHEAST OF ASSINIE, Ivory Coast (Reuters) - The outline of a ship slowly emerged from the haze, and the crew of the Ivory Coast's naval patroller Le Bouclier said it was a Colombian vessel suspected of smuggling drugs that they had been hunting for several hours.
As Le Bouclier closed in, seeking to hail the suspect ship over the radio, elite troops readied compact assault rifles designed especially for close-quarter combat.
The hot pursuit was, in reality, a training run - part of a U.S.-sponsored exercise meant to mirror the reality of the Gulf of Guinea, some of the world's most under-policed waters, where maritime criminals smuggle drugs, hijack vessels, illegally fish and sell stolen oil from Nigeria.
A decline in Somali piracy left the gulf the world's center for attacks at sea. More than half of all maritime kidnapping victims in 2016 were captured off West Africa, according to International Maritime Bureau statistics.
West African nations may be losing up to $1.3 billion each year to illegal fishing. And Nigeria's navy confiscated 420 billion naira ($1.34 billion) worth of stolen crude oil and illegally refined diesel last year alone.
But regional efforts to boost naval capacity, cross-border cooperation and training may finally be bringing some order to the chaos.
"It's exceedingly important for the citizens of this continent to own the resources that the sea provides," said Vice Admiral Michael Franken, deputy for operations at the U.S. military's Africa Command, which organized the training exercise called Obangame Express.
WILL TO COOPERATE
Like many of its neighbors, Ivory Coast had virtually no means of patrolling its territorial waters until just a few years ago.
"When I came into the navy, I was appointed to a warship," recalls Lieutenant Ghislain Guie, skipper of Le Bouclier, which means "shield" in French. But the navy's ships were often derelict or lacked fuel, and he rarely put to sea.
Since 2014, though, Ivory Coast has acquired three new 33-metre French-built patrol vessels. Ghana, Benin and Togo have expanded their fleets. And Cameroon, Senegal and Nigeria, which already maintained larger navies, are continuing to invest.
"The capacities have certainly increased over the past 10 years but at different speeds. Some countries have started from practically zero," said Commander Dirk Steffan, the German navy's liaison officer for Obangame Express.
However, the criminal gangs are skilled at exploiting weak links, said Barthelemy Blede, maritime security senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies.
"So it's better to have a homogeneous system rather than one country that is secured just next door to another country that isn't," he said.
During a meeting in Cameroon in 2013, regional governments agreed on the terms of intervention and how to share responsibilities in the fight against maritime crime.
It may be too early to judge the impact of the increased cooperation. After a 2015 lull, piracy surged again last year. And so far 2017 has seen a spate of attacks, mainly off Nigeria and linked to resurgent militancy in the Niger Delta. But there is cause for optimism.
When pirates seized the MT Maximus, a Panamanian-flagged tanker, off the coast of Ivory Coast last year, regional navies worked together to track it over 800 nautical miles through the waters of Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo and Benin.
Nigerian forces finally retook the ship in a nighttime raid off the islands of Sao Tome and Principe, apprehending some of the pirates and freeing 16 of the crew members.
"It's not only about (military) assets," said Lieutenant Guie. "(Countries) want to tackle the transnational threats together. They have the will ... and that's what's most important."
($1 = 314.5000 naira)
(Editing by Tim Cocks< larry King)