The United States is investigating reports that pirates kidnapped two Americans from a U.S.-flagged ship off the coast of Nigeria in West Africa, where security has been a growing concern.
The incident involves a U.S.-flagged vessel, the 222-foot C-Retriever, in the Gulf of Guinea.
“We are seeking additional information about the incident,” the State Department said.
The ship’s captain and chief engineer were abducted early Wednesday morning, according the British security firm AKE. Rick Filon of AKE said Nigerian Central 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 organization 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.