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Pirates inch nearer Caribbean, India sits up

- Threat to Delhi’s oil supplies as ship hijackings off West African coast endanger import routes

New Delhi, July 28: Pirates are moving closer to the Caribbean, and they’re threatening India’s oil supplies.

Energy-hungry India is worried about rising piracy off the West African coast that has imperilled maritime routes New Delhi is increasingly depending on for oil imports to reduce its reliance on Iran. The trend comes at a time hijackings off the Somalia coast are in decline.

After yearly increases, India’s oil imports from the Gulf of Guinea nations that form Africa’s western armpit have dropped by about 16 per cent over the corresponding period last year as a reaction to a steady rise in piracy in the region, government and international statistics show. (See chart)

India is now preparing to enhance its training and cooperation with West African navies to bolster their capacity to challenge pirates, senior government officials told The Telegraph.

“We’re ready to offer them any help they need,” an official said. “The Somalia piracy is decreasing; it’s in the Gulf of Guinea that we need to cooperate with allies to tackle this menace.”

The Gulf of Guinea — off Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Congo and the northern stretch of Angola — is where ships and tankers carrying oil from these nations to India begin their journey.

Although the region has long witnessed piracy, it is the surge in reported attacks — from 32 in all of 2010 to 31 in just the first six months of this year — that has now triggered the alarm bells in New Delhi.

What has helped is a sharp decline in reported piracy in the Gulf of Aden off the coast of Somalia, from 192 attacks in 2010 down to just 8 in the first half of 2013, according to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), the global sea security agency that the United Nations relies on for maritime security statistics.

“The massive cooperation between navies of major countries that we’ve seen in the past two years has played a key role in cutting off the narrow escape route that pirates have in the Gulf of Aden,” IMB deputy director Michael Howlett told this newspaper.

Also, many ships passing through the Gulf of Aden have started employing armed security to ward off approaching pirates. Land-based efforts by the coastal nations to cut off sanctuaries where the pirates can seek temporary shelter have also helped.

Many of the vessels attacked by Somali pirates, especially since 2008, were either owned by Indian firms or had dozens of Indian sailors.

A key characteristic of Somali pirates, experts say, is that they usually don’t loot vessels and then scoot. Instead, they take hostages and seek ransom — a sequence of events that has played out routinely over the past few years on Indian television as families pleaded with the government to intervene.

Over the past two years, India has intervened, sending its navy ships to escort vessels — both Indian and foreign — in the Gulf of Aden in cooperation with the US, China and the coastal nations.

But the piracy in the Gulf of Aden pinched the Indian oil imports relatively less — most tankers to India from Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq come through the Gulf of Oman — compared to the threat posed by attacks in the Gulf of Guinea.

On Friday, public sector firm Oil India Limited announced that it had struck oil in Gabon, a success that comes on the back of a steady increase till this year in India’s once negligible oil imports from West Africa.

By June 2012, oil imports from the Gulf of Guinea nations had overtaken imports from Iraq, till then India’s second-largest bilateral supplier of crude. India is today Nigeria’s biggest single oil client, bigger than even traditional gas guzzlers like the US.

But Indian officials are restrained in their celebrations of the Gabon discovery. Around July 14, pirates hijacked a Turkish merchant ship, MV Cotton, off the coast of Gabon, holding 24 Indian sailors on board hostage. The ship was captained by 64-year-old Shishir Wahi, a resident of Calcutta’s Alipore and an alumnus of Sainik School, Purulia. The sailors were released a week later.

“We need to offer a helping hand to West African nations now,” said Commander S.S. Parmar, a former naval officer who is now a research fellow at the Delhi-based Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, a strategic affairs think-tank.

“We must not ignore this problem the way we did with the Somali piracy — from 1991, when it was first observed, till a few years back.”

Last year, India’s then permanent representative to the UN, Hardeep Puri, told the international body at a key meeting that New Delhi supported greater cooperation in curbing piracy in the Gulf of Guinea.

But the sheer distance of the Gulf of Guinea from Indian shores means that as of now, India’s best chance at securing the region lies with strengthening the coastal countries, instead of sending its own ships as it has to the Gulf of Aden, officials said.

One of the quirks of geography that makes the Gulf of Aden easier for navies to secure compared with the Gulf of Guinea is the bottleneck that southern Saudi Arabia and Yemen form with northeast Africa, a squeeze absent in the open seas off West Africa.

As Cameroon and Nigeria have begun to take on pirates close to their coast, the attacks have shifted farther away from the mainland, and down the coast closer to Angola.

“It’s like having a policeman at one place,” IMB deputy director Howlett said. “The criminals just target somewhere else.”

Traditionally, pirates in the Gulf of Guinea have followed a model closer to the adventures of Jack Sparrow and his associates in the Pirates of the Caribbean Hollywood series.

Unlike Somali pirates, and like the characters in the Hollywood films, these pirates have focused more on the booty on board than on holding hostages to ransom, according to experts.

But the mid-July attack on the MV Cotton has sparked concerns that the pirates may be changing tack, adding ransom money to the booty they earn.

“They could be slowly adopting the tactics of the Somali pirates,” Parmar said. “That’s my biggest worry.”

If that happens, Jack Sparrow’s West African cousins may start competing with him on Indian television.