Pirate attacks heighten around Calabar creeks
By Ndubuisi Ugah with agency reports
Nigeria‚Äôs military officials Sunday said they were yet to establish contact on the whereabouts or condition of the two Americans sailing on a United States flagged ship, who were kidnapped by pirates off the Nigerian coast.
According to the US National Broadcasting Company (NBC), the military officials stated that they were still searching for the two Americans as at Friday, who were kidnapped at sea off the coast of Nigeria, which had witnessed the activities of pirates in recent years.
The kidnap of the two Amercans is coming as boat operators and traders in Oron, Akwa Ibom State, decried the increasing rate of piracy activities around the Calabar creeks.
The News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) gathered that the development had led to a hike in water transportation charges as the operators claim to be operating under risks.
But, the Nigerian Navy Spokesman, Kabiru Aliyu, said: ‚ÄúYes, we are aware that they are missing, but we still do not have any information on the whereabouts of the men. We have deployed search-and-rescue teams, who are currently combing the creeks. We are doing our best to find them.‚Äù
Aliyu told the NBC News that the ship had been found, but did not give more details as he said it was ‚Äúsomewhere off Bonny in the Eastern Naval Command Area of Responsibility.‚Äù
NBC‚Äôs Jim Miklaszewski reported that the constant flow of massive cargo ships in the Gulf of Guinea had become a fertile hunting ground for pirates.
US officials confirmed to NBC News that two Americans were taken on Wednesday last week in an area plagued by pirates, criminal gangs and active militant groups. The pirates boarded the ship and singled out the Americans, that is, the captain and chief engineer and took them ashore as hostages.
The US State Department spokeswoman, Marie Harf, told journalist that: ‚ÄúWe believe this was an act of piracy. At this point, we do not have information that would indicate this was an act of terrorism. Obviously, our concern at this point is for the safe return of the two US citizens.
‚ÄúUS officials were closely monitoring the situation and seeking more information:‚Äù
Speaking also, a former US State Department official, Andrew Shapiro, said on the TODAY show on Friday, that: ‚ÄúThis is not a Hollywood movie plot. Piracy and hijackings threaten our economic security and put innocent lives at risk.‚Äù
However, Nigerian officials echoed American officials position on the issue, saying they believed that the abductions had been carried out by ‚Äúcriminals‚Äù and not politically motivated militants.
Maritime news website gCaptain reported that the captain and chief engineer of oil supply vessel C-Retriever had been abducted.
Equally, C-Retriever‚Äôs insurer, Skuld, told NBC News that the ship was ‚Äúnot under the control of pirates.‚Äù
A US defence official said the State Department and FBI were leading the American response to the incident. A second defence official said the US Marine Corps had a small training unit in the region but it was not clear if it would get involved.
The State Department spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, said on Friday that US officials in Nigeria had been in touch with their local counterparts but that no further information was available.
In an interview with NBC News‚Äô Brian Williams on Thursday, American cargo ship Capt. Richard Phillips, who was taken hostage off the coast of Somalia in April, 2009, said the waters off Nigeria were ‚Äúworse than even Somalia.‚Äù
Nigerian navy special forces patrol the waters during a joint military exercise between Nigerian armed forces, US, Britain, Netherlands and Spain in Lagos in October 18.
US Navy SEAL snipers killed the three Somali pirates and rescued Phillips, who had offered himself as a hostage to save his crew. His high-seas hijacking has been turned into a film starring Tom Hanks. ‚ÄúCaptain Phillips‚Äù earned more than $52 million during its first two weeks in cinemas.
Meanwhile, the operators and traders told the NAN on Saturday in Oron that attacks on boats and vessels have become a major challenge in their business.
For instance, a boat owner, Ime Etim, told NAN that piracy was affecting water transportation in the area.
‚ÄúIf pirates attack us, we give them money. Sometimes, they seize our boats or the goods of the traders,‚Äù Etim said.
Another boat owner, Taju Balogun, corroborated Etims‚Äô complaint, stating that pirates were not only seizing boats, but sometimes killed passengers in the boats.
Similarly, a fish trader, Mrs Ndi Okon, also told NAN that boat owners have increased their fares because of the activities of the pirates.
‚ÄúBefore now, we paid between N400 and N500 within the Calabar creeks, but now, we pay N1,200 per trip. This is affecting the cost of business,‚Äù Okon said.
Sources, however, told NAN that vessels navigating within the Calabar creeks, around 40 nautical miles from the Fairway Bouy, up to the Calabar Port, have been operating in fear.
The source, who pleaded anonymity, said reports of attacks on vessels and boats around the port have increased in recent times, stressing that there were several islands around the passage leading to the port.
These islands, the source said, served as hideouts for militants who carried out illegal operations on the water.
‚ÄúProblems with the passage is that there are several islands, like Parrot Island and Snake Island, where militants used to hide. Even ordinary boats crossing the islands have increased their fares because of the activities of pirates,‚Äù the source said.
The source said Nigerian waters had yet to attain a satisfactory level of security, in spite of measures being taking by the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA).
‚ÄúRecently, NIMASA arrested some oil tankers and handed them over to the EFCC, but nobody has been prosecuted. NIMASA is struggling, but at the same time, there are people sponsoring these pirates,‚Äù the source noted.