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US citizens abducted by pirates off Nigeria

Attack by pirates tied to escalating danger in region

Pirates attacked an American-flagged oil industry vessel off the Nigerian coast early Thursday and abducted the captain and the chief engineer, both US citizens, the Nigerian navy and a private security firm reported. The abductions appeared to be the first involving US hostages in that region in at least two years.

An official of the private security firm, AKE Group, of Hereford, England, said the attack on the vessel, identified as the C-Retriever, took place near the Nigerian city of Brass, where the oil-rich Niger Delta empties into the Gulf of Guinea, in West Africa. The official, based in AKE Group’s office in Lagos, Nigeria, spoke on the condition of anonymity.

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“All we know is this attack happened, and these were the people who were kidnapped,” the official said in a telephone interview. He said he did not know the identities of the two hostages.

A spokesman for the Nigerian navy, Commander Kabiru Aliyu, confirmed the piracy attack.

“The Nigerian navy has directed its operational command to search for and rescue the vessel and the crew members,” he said. “Right now, the search is going on, and we are tracking down the culprits. We don’t know how it was carried out.”

The C-Retriever’s owner, Edison Chouest Offshore, a marine transportation company based in Cut Off, La., issued no immediate comment. A company spokesman, Lonnie Thibodeaux, did not respond to telephone calls and e-mails.

In Washington, Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, said at a regular daily news briefing that the administration was “seeking additional information so that we can contribute to the safe resolution of the situation.” He also expressed concern about “the disturbing increase in the incidents of maritime crime, including incidents of piracy off the coast of West Africa, specifically in the Gulf of Guinea.”

Piracy on the West African coast has eclipsed attacks on the Somali coast, where tough policing and other policies have been effective.

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Online maritime database services describe the C-Retriever as a 200-foot-long supply ship and put its last reported location at Onne, a Nigerian port about 70 miles east of Brass.

In recent months, oil servicing vessels in the Gulf of Guinea have become increasingly prominent targets of pirates who abduct crew members for ransom. Maritime industry officials say that many abductions are not reported, and that the ransoms are settled quickly and privately to avoid publicity over the amounts paid.

The abduction reported on Thursday underscored the rising danger of piracy in West Africa over the past year, eclipsing the Somali coast on the other side of the continent. A report in June by three piracy monitoring organizations said the number of ships and sailors attacked by pirates off West Africa in 2012 exceeded those attacked off Somalia for the first time.

On Wednesday, the United Nations reported that Somali piracy had fallen to a seven-year low because of increased international policing, tougher prosecutions of pirate gangs, and greater use of private security by commercial shippers.

In West Africa, by contrast, governments do not allow armed private security guards aboard ships, which may be emboldening pirates, said Adjoa Anyimadu, an expert on piracy at Chatham House, a research organization in London.

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