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Alarming Increase in Gulf of Guinea Piracy in 2019 as Kidnappings Increase More Than 50 Percent

Last year saw an alarming increase in maritime kidnappings across the Gulf of Guinea, despite overall piracy incidents declining.

The International Chamber of Commerce’s International Maritime Bureau’s (IMB) annual piracy report notes that the IMB Piracy Reporting Centre received 162 incidents of piracy and armed robbery against ships worldwide in 2019, in comparison to 201 reported incidents in 2018. The incidents included four hijacked vessels, 11 vessels fired upon, 17 attempted attacks, and 130 vessels boarded.

The vast majority of incidents occurred in the Gulf of Guinea. The number of crew kidnapped in the region increased more than 50% from 78 in 2018 to 121 in 2019. This equates to over 90% of global kidnappings reported at sea with 64 crew members kidnapped across six separate incidents in the last quarter of 2019 alone. As well as all vessel hijackings in 2019, the region also accounted 10 out of 11 cases where vessels came under fire.

Michael Howlett, Director of the ICC International Maritime Bureau, said these latest statistics confirm the importance of increased information exchange and coordination between vessels, reporting and response agencies in the Gulf of Guinea Region. “Without the necessary reporting structures in place, we will be unable to accurately highlight the high-risk areas for seafarers and address the rise of piracy incidents in these persistently vulnerable waters.”

On December 15, around six heavily armed pirates boarded a product tanker underway approximately 118nm of Cotonou, Benin, kidnapping 20 seafarers and destroying some equipment on board. The pirates left a single crew member, a deck cadet, behind. The tanker was sailing from Luanda, Angola to Lome in Togo when the pirates struck.

The incident came just days after 19 crew members from a Very Large Crude Container (VLCC) were kidnapped about 100nm south of Bonny Island offshore Nigeria on 3 December. In this case, seven crew members were left behind.

In November, Gulf of Guinea pirates kidnapped a total of 13 people on two European-flagged ships. Four crew members on a Greek oil tanker were kidnapped after pirates boarded the boat off the coast of Togo, while eight people were kidnapped from a Norwegian cargo boat during a similar incident off the coast of neighboring Benin.

The Singapore Straits also experienced a rise in armed robbery attacks with 12 reported incidents in 2019, 11 of which were in the last quarter of 2019. The same region accounted for just three incidents for the entirety of 2018. Despite this, IMB considers the intensity of the attacks in the Singapore Straits to be ‘low level’ and usually limited to armed robbery from the vessel.  “This is a distraction and potentially dangerous for the crew in control of the vessel whilst navigating through these congested waters”, said Howlett.

On December 23, two incidents were reported in the eastbound lane of the Singapore Strait on the same day. Of the two ships that were boarded, one was a bulk carrier and one was a tanker. In both incidents, the crew was tied up by the perpetrators. The perpetrators escaped empty-handed after the crew activated the ship alarm.

In Indonesia, coordination and dialogue between local law enforcement – Indonesian Maritime Police – and IMB has led to a decrease in incidents. Armed robbery attacks in Indonesian ports are down from 36 in 2018 to 25 in 2019.

Elsewhere, in the Indian sub-continent, Bangladesh reported zero incidents for 2019, which is the first time since 2015 that no piracy or armed robbery incidents have been reported around Bangladesh.

Once a piracy stronghold, with attacks recorded on an almost daily basis, Somalia also reported zero piracy incidents in 2019. Counter piracy efforts in the region since the height of Somali pirate attacks ten years ago have yielded excellent results but IMB advises that vessels and crews remain cautious when travelling through the region as the capability remains both in the Somali basin and wider Indian Ocean.

Read the complete annual piracy report here

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Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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