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By RICK GLADSTONE Published: September 14, 2011
The hijacking was the latest in a series of increasingly brazen assaults on commercial shipping in a coastal region of Africa that had been considered relatively safe until this year.
The attack on the tanker, a Cyprus-flagged vessel laden with oil, came as it was trying to transfer some of its cargo to a Norwegian-flagged vessel, according to the monitoring group, the International Maritime Bureau in London. It said the pirates also boarded the second vessel, but that ship’s crew members locked themselves in the engine room, and the pirates left.
The maritime bureau said the confrontations took place in the Gulf of Guinea, about 70 miles from Cotonou, the commercial capital of Benin. The bureau did not identify either ship by name.
Serghios Serghiou, the director of the Department of Merchant Shipping in Cyprus, identified the vessel as the Mattheos I, which had a Filipino crew with Spanish, Peruvian and Ukrainian officers, The Associated Press reported. It quoted him as saying, “The ship sent out the initial security alert, but unfortunately, we haven’t been able to communicate with the ship.”
Cyrus Mody, manager of the International Maritime Bureau, said in a telephone interview that it had recorded 19 pirate attacks on shipping this year in the Gulf of Guinea, compared with none in 2010. All of the targets have been tankers carrying fuel, which the pirates are able to sell on the black market.
While hijackings in the region still pale in comparison with the piracy scourge off Somalia, on the other side of the continent, the attacks have alarmed shippers and insurers. Last month, Lloyd’s Market Association, a group of insurers in London, added the coastal waters off Benin and part of Nigeria to a high-risk category that also includes Somalia’s coast.
Mr. Mody attributed the rise in piracy in the Gulf of Guinea to a crackdown on fuel thieves in Nigeria, a leading oil exporter. He said the effort had forced the thieves to move to neighboring Benin, whose government has little ability to police its coast. “We believe there’s a high probability of an extension of Nigerian pirates moving away from their own playground,” he said.
Although the hostages taken in these attacks have generally been released within 72 hours and none have been killed, Mr. Mody said the pirates were not gentle with captives. “These instances are very short, very fast and quite violent — rifle butts to the head, lashing with cables, that sort of violence,” he said.
Michael G. Frodl, the founder and head of C-LEVEL Maritime Risks, a Washington-based risks consultancy that advises maritime industry interests, said the rise in Gulf of Guinea piracy also reflected a general increase in economic misery, as well as the role model created by successful Somali pirate groups, who have been able to exact millions of dollars in ransoms from shippers.
In Somalia, Mr. Frodl said, pirates can act with far greater impunity because there is basically no government in that country.
“The one thing that’s going to hold back the development of a ransom model in Western Africa is the fact that these coastal countries still have law and order, and it’s going to be hard to hold on to a ship for more than a few days,” he said.
A version of this article appeared in print on September 15, 2011, on page A10 of the New York edition with the headline: Armed Pirates Hijack a Fuel Tanker Off Benin and Take 23 Crew Members Hostage.