Pirate Attacks On the Rise in Nigerian Waters

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13 March 2008

Pirate attacks in the waters of Africa's largest oil producer, Nigeria, have surged in recent weeks, linked to a decline in general security in the southern oil-producing region. A leading international worker's union wants the waters to be declared a war zone. For VOA, Sarah Simpson has more from Lagos.

The pirates attacked at night, their speedboat roaring out of the waves firing their AK-47s. The crew realized they were under attack when their trawler was peppered with a hale of bullets.

One bullet hit the ship's cook, passing right through his belly as he lay on his bunk below decks. The pirates clambered aboard, hitting the crew with the rifle butts and machetes, demanding cash said the captain, who asked only to be identified as Johnson.

"They got us at about 1.30 a.m., they came on board, they came with a speed boat, nine of them all armed. They came looking for money," he said.

While the chef writhed in agony, the pirates ate the food the he had earlier prepared, slept, and looted the ship of anything of value, including the captain's shoes.

Pirate attacks have peaked in recent weeks with fishermen subjected to unprecedented levels of violence, says a trawler company manager who asked only to be identified as Victor.

"Some few years back they would come, they attack you, they take what ever you have on board and they go without killing people," he said."But in the last three years the killing has basically been on the increase."

This year, attacks reached a critical level. In one bloody week in January, 20 trawlers were attacked and 10 people were killed. Fishermen have gone on strike and the Nigerian fishing industry is in jeopardy, say trawler companies.

Nigerian waters are not safe enough to operate in, says Michael Bissong of the Nigerian Trawler Owner's Association.

"The captains were not even willing to go to sea because of the fear of loosing their lives," said Bissong.

Freight ships and oil industry vessels are being attacked, too, particularly in the waters off Nigeria's oil-rich southern region, according to statistics from the International Maritime Bureau.

Piracy is so bad the International Transport Workers Union this year called for Nigeria's waters to be declared a war zone.

Nigeria and particularly the oil-rich Niger Delta where the oil is pumped is awash with guns.

There, militant groups like the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta kidnap expatriate workers for ransom. MEND have also attacked oil infrastructure, including blowing up pipelines and invasions of off-shore oil-rigs.

Now, a crackdown on some criminal activities in the Niger Delta is behind an upsurge of piracy in the southern waters, industry officials say.

Improved security and more naval patrols are the solution, say maritime representatives.

Press officer Yemi Nelson of the Ministry of Agriculture, which is responsible for fisheries, told VOA that extra security measures had been put in place, but said he was unable to give details.

Navy representatives this week told local newspapers that patrols of the 850-kilometer coastline would be increased with 15 extra boats.

The pirates that attacked Captain Johnson boasted that they were not afraid of the Nigerian navy or the army and showed him amulets that they said protected their bodies from bullets.

"They showed us charms. They said they could not be defeated. 'Even let the army come forward' [they said], as they cannot defeat them. They are well prepared," said Johnson.

The pirates robbed Captain Johnson's boat of all its navigation and communication equipment, even unscrewing the air conditioning units.

The pirates then used Captain Johnson's boat as a decoy to pull right alongside their second target before springing aboard. By the time the pirates left Captain Johnson and his crew, they were 14 hours from Lagos harbor and a hospital. The cook died before they reached the wharf.