Gunmen attacked a supply tug boat off the coast of Nigeria's oil-rich southern delta, kidnapping four foreign sailors in the latest attack in the West African region that is increasingly dangerous for shippers and oil companies, officials said Monday.
The attack happened 40 nautical miles off the coast of Bayelsa state in the Niger Delta on Sunday night, as the gunmen stormed the moving vessel, the International Maritime Bureau said Monday in a warning to other shippers. The gunmen seized four workers and later fled, the bureau said. Those remaining onboard safely guided the ship to a nearby harbor, the bureau said.
The bureau did not identify the shipper, nor the sailors. However, a separate notice to private security contractors working in Nigeria and seen by The Associated Press identified the four hostages as foreigners.
In Rome, the Foreign Ministry confirmed the kidnapping, saying the four hostages were members of the crew. A Foreign Ministry official said three of the four were Italian. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information publicly, said he didn't know the nationality of the fourth hostage.
Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi was following the case personally, and the ministry was working with Nigerian officials to secure the safe return of the crew, the official said. The official and the private security notice seen by the AP identified the vessel attacked as the Asso Ventuno, operated by Augusta Offshore SpA, a Naples-based shipping company.
Calls to the company were not successful on Monday, Christmas Eve. Someone who answered the phone hung up when contacted by the AP, and then didn't pick up on subsequent calls. The company's website says it does business with oil companies Total SA and Exxon Mobil Corp. in Nigeria.
Commodore Kabir Aliyu, a spokesman for Nigeria's navy, declined to immediately comment Monday.
Pirate attacks are on the rise in West Africa's Gulf of Guinea, which follows the continent's southward curve from Liberia to Gabon. Over the last year and a half, piracy there has escalated from low-level armed robberies to hijackings and cargo thefts. Last year, London-based Lloyd's Market Association - an umbrella group of insurers - listed Nigeria, neighboring Benin and nearby waters in the same risk category as Somalia, where two decades of war and anarchy have allowed piracy to flourish.
Analysts believe many of the attackers come from Nigeria, whose lawless waters and often violent oil region routinely see foreigners kidnapped for ransom. Increasingly, criminal gangs also have targeted middle- and upper-class Nigerians as well.
Typically, foreign companies operating in Nigeria's Niger Delta pay cash ransoms to free their employees after negotiating down kidnappers' demands. Foreign hostages can fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece.