Benin is seeking to buy planes and patrol boats to fight a rise in piracy off its coast, and may also ask the United Nations for help policing regional waters, the U.S. envoy to the West African state said on Tuesday.
Piracy is a growing threat to shipping in West Africa’s Gulf of Guinea – a major source of oil, metals and agricultural products to world markets – with a spate of attacks off Benin this year marking an expansion in the area pirates operate.
“Benin is hoping to acquire one or two light aircraft to enhance surveillance capacity and is looking to both the French and the United States as possible sources for that,” James Knight, the U.S. ambassador to Benin, told Reuters in a telephone interview.
“We are thinking that would be an excellent idea ... as surveillance is the most significant lack of capability on their part,” he said.
According to Mr. Knight Benin’s government was also in talks with France for three patrol boats, to add to the country’s two “armed and very fast” 27-foot defender class vessels given by the United States last year.
A Benin government official was not immediately available to comment.
While attacks in the Gulf of Guinea have not hit levels seen off Somalia’s coast, analysts say pirates have spotted a window of opportunity with weak local security and a craggy coastline which offers natural hideouts.
More than 20 attacks have been reported off Benin alone this year, and experts say many more likely went unreported in the Gulf of Guinea region as shipping companies sought to avoid increased insurance premiums.
Mr. Knight said Benin may ask the United Nations to consider an international force to help stem the attacks in the Gulf of Guinea in a manner similar to the NATO and European Union operations to protect local shipping off Somalia.
Mr. Knight explained that the country’s president mentioned the possibility of bringing the request to the UN. “To my knowledge he hasn’t detailed that beyond the idea that there must be an international effort to combat piracy in the Gulf of Guinea,” said Mr. Knight.
London’s marine insurance market added Benin to the list of dangerous shipping areas last week, and analysts said if piracy continues to expand in the region other countries like new oil producer Ghana could follow.
Pirates in the Gulf of Guinea tend to raid ships for cash, valuables and cargo, instead of hijacking them for huge ransoms like their counterparts in the Gulf of Aden a key waterway for Persian Gulf crude oil.
Attacks in the Gulf of Guinea have traditionally centered off of Nigeria’s Niger Delta, home to a rebel movement that claims to be angry at the unequal distribution of the OPEC nation’s oil wealth.
But the surge in pirate attacks off Benin, which had 21 reported attacks so far this year compared to just one in 2010, marks a shift by the pirates into waters that are less heavily patrolled than Nigeria’s.
“As a target of opportunity, Benin is a relatively safer place to engage in piracy,” Mr. Knight said.
“This is driving commerce to other parts of the African coast. Ships are going farther west to Lome and other ports, instead of Cotonou.,” he said. This may have serious impacts on the country’s economy as it depends greatly on its ports.
The growing threat of piracy off of Benin, a poor nation with heavy reliance on its cotton industry and regional trade, is also undermining a U.S.-funded development effort to double the capacity of the port of Cotonou, Mr. Knight said.
The pirates themselves are likely Nigerian militants from the Niger Delta who have shifted west along the coast, as opposed to any new piracy groups that have cropped up locally, said Mr. Knight.
“The individuals that have been picked up, at least two have been arrested, are Nigerian in origin. We also believe the fact that this follows the Nigerian pattern that was well-established in the Niger Delta suggests that Nigerians are probably behind most of these,” he said.
The United States has been helping to train Benin’s navy since 2006 and the French military was also assisting in training and coastal monitoring.
But he added that a broader international plea for help at the United Nations, if made, would be unlikely to get the same kind of response seen in the Gulf of Aden.
“The level of effort which we see in the Gulf of Aden is unlikely to be reproduced here for no other reason than the fact that the problem has been smaller,” he said.
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