Two United States citizens were kidnapped from an oil supply vessel off the coast of Nigeria. The incident highlights piracy’s shift westward from East Africa – tighter security and the promise of new oil have made the continent’s western coast an increasing target for pirate attacks.

sailorsThe American captain and chief engineer of an oil platform supply ship have been kidnapped by pirates off the coast of Nigeria, news agencies reported yesterday.

The Nigerian Navy said the incident took place off the coastal lines of Brass Island in Bayelsa State.

The Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta (MEND) in a statement last night by its Spokesman Jomo Gbomo, claimed responsibility for the abduction of the Americans.

MEND said: “The Americans will not be handed over for our direct custody, but we will have the influence to visit them and ensure that they are well looked after, until their subsequent release.

“This latest incident is to confirm to the world that accidents do not just happen, as the deceitful and corrupt government of President Goodluck Jonathan wants the world to believe.

“Unresolved root issues, compounded by the continued detention of Henry Okah (one of MEND’s leaders, serving a jail term in South African prison); his brother, Charles Okah; and several others over false accusations, as well as a monumental Niger Delta amnesty fraud, can only make security and peace in the region an illusion.”

The Director of Naval Information, Commodore Kabiru Aliyu, told reporters in Yenagoa, the state capital that the Navy had swung into action to rescue the Americans.

“The Nigerian Navy has received a report on the attack of a U.S.-flagged vessel, C-RETRIEVER. Accordingly, the Nigerian Navy has directed its Operational Commands and the Operational Bases to search and rescue the crew members and the vessel,” Aliyu said.

Some suspected pirates had on Wednesday shot and killed two soldiers in an ambush along the waterways in Ikuru community in Andoni Local Government Area of Rivers.

Maritime industry website gCaptain first reported the incident, saying the “C-Retriever” supply ship, owned by Louisiana-based marine transport company Edison Chouest, was attacked by pirates near the city of Brass, in the Niger Delta, on Wednesday. Brass sits at the mouth of one of the many rivers and streams that empty into the Gulf of Guinea, forming the Delta, which is home to a number of large international oil platforms and regular industry ship traffic.

A spokesman for the U.S. military’s Africa Command (AFRICOM) told CBS News they were aware of the reports, but would not comment further. The State Department also said it was “closely monitoring” the reports and was “seeking additional information about the incident.”

Both the Associated Press and Reuters news agencies said U.S. defense officials confirmed the information.

Rick Filon of AKE said the Naval Command has provided no additional information.

The ship is owned by Edison Chouest Offshore, based in Cut Off, La. ECO supports the majority of the U.S. Gulf deepwater oil rigs and an expanding global market with a fleet of more than 200 vessels, ranging from 87 to over 360 feet in length, according to the company web site.

Maj. Mark Firman, a Pentagon spokesman, described the incident as “a piracy attack on a commercial vessel off the coast of Nigeria.”

“There is no involvement of DoD at this point,” Firman said. “It’s a maritime criminal act.”

U.S. Navy SEALs rescued an American Capt. Richard Phillips off the coast of Somalia in 2009, when he was abducted by pirates who attacked his ship, the Maersk Alabama. But unlike the east coast of Africa there is no international counter-piracy mission off the coast of west Africa, Firman said.

Piracy off Africa’s west coast has been a growing problem, however, according to maritime security experts.

The C-Retriever is a supply vessel for oil platforms in the Gulf of Guinea and has been working in the area since about April 2006, said Daryl Williamson, commercial development director for Lloyds List Intelligence.

Piracy in the area tends to target slow-moving, anchored vessels doing ship-to-ship operations, often in in-shore waters as opposed to the high seas, Williamson said.

Cyrus Mody, assistant director of the International Maritime Bureau, said incidents off the coast of Nigeria have been growing “for a number of years,” though they’ve been overshadowed by piracy off the Somali coast and “hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves,” Mody said.

Attacks have ranged from opportunistic and sometimes violent robberies aboard vessels to steal the ship’s cash or the crew’s personal belongings, to more sophisticated operations aimed at ships’ cargo.

Those usually involve ships carrying refined products, gas or oil, that are hijacked for on average seven to 12 days. The cargo is transferred to another ship. The pirates then either release the ship and crew or take a number of crew hostage for ransom, Mody said.

Such operations appear to be the work of well-organized crime syndicates, Mody said. In some cases, the pirates knew what they were doing in terms of how the cargo was kept and how things function on board a vessel, he said.

Such hijackings require “buyers willing to take cargo, there has to be a degree of organisation on land as well as at sea,” he said.

Not all the hijackings have occurred off the coast of Nigeria but they all have a connection to that West African country, he said.

“It is something the countries (in the region) are looking at very carefully and closely and trying to implement measures,” he said.

An American man from Georgia was kidnapped from the Niger Delta city of Warri last year. He was freed after a week in captivity, possibly for a large ransom, though the circumstances were not confirmed. There were five reports of U.S. nationals being kidnapped in Nigeria in 2011.

Nigeria’s government earns billions of dollars a year from its resources in the oil-rich Delta, but is frequently accused of widespread corruption that keeps the vast majority of Nigerians from sharing in the wealth.

The Delta region’s inhabitants remain impoverished, and for years small groups of bandits have attacked oil industry vessels, but the attacks have increased in recent years and become more dangerous, according to one industry worker who left the region last year.

George Ezard, a British contract engineer who spent eight years working in Nigeria, told the attacks on ships and platforms were even creeping west from the Delta toward Lagos, Nigeria’s sprawling economic capital.

“Only one company would give us life insurance, but it wasn’t valid in the Delta,” recalled Ezard, who worked most recently in Lagos but was previously based in the Delta city of Port Harcourt.

“Even in Lagos it (pirate attacks) was increasing,” he said. “It was really getting to be bad. He said the threat in the early years was “from small-time opportunists, then suddenly it became armed gangs who killed people and demanded ransoms.”

The incident highlights piracy’s shift westward from East Africa – tighter security and the promise of new oil have made the continent’s western coast an increasing target for pirate attacks.

Piracy has long flourished off Africa’s east coast, where lawlessness in Somalia has fueled attacks on large vessels carrying fuels and other goods. But the intervention of international naval forces is forcing pirates west, where a combination of looser security and increased oil production makes the region an appealing target.

“There has been a worrying trend in the kidnapping of crew from vessels well outside the territorial limits of coastal states in the Gulf of Guinea,” said Pottengal Mukundan, director of the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), an arm of the International Chamber of Commerce, said in a July statement announcing the organisation’s global piracy report.

“There continues to be significant under-reporting of attacks,” Mr. Mukundan said. “This prevents meaningful response by the authorities and endangers other vessels sailing into the area unaware of the precise nature of the threat.”

East African attacks are down, following the global downward trend in piracy. Only 75 ships reported attacks off the coast of Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden in 2012, according to IMB. That’s down from 237 in 2011, a figure that accounted for a quarter of attacks worldwide. But West African attacks ticked up to 58 in 2012 from 33 in 2010. In the first half of 2013, IMB reported 31 incidents in the Gulf of Guinea.

The attraction is Nigeria, which is Africa’s largest oil producer with a capacity of over 3 million barrels of oil per day. In 2011, Nigeria was the fourth-largest foreign oil supplier to the US. Theft and vandalism have hit onshore production hard in recent years, with the country losing $11 billion to crude oil theft and pipeline vandalism between 2009 and 2011. Citing instability in Nigeria, oil major Shell’s profit dropped to $4.6 billion in the second quarter 2013 from $5.7 billion a year earlier.

Wednesday’s attack, along with other recent incidents suggests attacks are increasingly moving offshore. That trend has troubled West African leaders, who in June called for the establishment of an international naval force in the Gulf of Guinea to cut down on security threats. Naval ships from European Union, China and the US already patrol the waters off Somalia on Africa’s east coast.

“The weakness – and sometimes general inadequacy – of maritime policies in Gulf of Guinea states, and the lack of cooperation between them have allowed criminal networks to diversify their activities and gradually extend them away from the coast and out on the high seas, from the Niger delta to Côte d’Ivoire”, Thierry Vircoulon, central Africa project director of International Crisis Group, last December said in a statement announcing the Brussels-based nonprofit’s report on the area.

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