Benin: Small nation of Benin at centre of W.African piracy fight
Small nation of Benin at centre of W.African piracy fight
The small nation of Benin has found itself on the front lines of an intensifying battle against piracy off West Africa's coast, with a spike in attacks raising deep concern in the shipping industry.
The country of some nine million people as well as the region has good reason to be concerned: around 60 percent of Benin's GDP comes from its port, which also serves West African countries further inland.
"At this rate, if nothing is done, ship owners are going to boycott the port," a source in the Benin presidency has said on condition of anonymity.
The coast of Benin has seen at least 20 piracy incidents so far this year compared to none in 2010, with the risk long associated with the waters off oil-rich Nigeria having seemingly spread to its much smaller neighbour.
The country has received help not only from Nigeria -- with joint patrols launched last month -- but also countries such as France, the United States and China.
Said Djinnit, the UN secretary general's representative in West Africa, has also pledged the world body's assistance.
Speedboats armed with automatic weapons now patrol the waters, while the joint Nigerian-Benin patrols were also to include a support ship equipped with a radar and helicopter.
According to a Benin navy source, the initiative is expected to last six months, by which time Benin is supposed to have acquired the means to supervise its territorial waters.
"It's very much a cause for concern," Michael Howlett of the International Maritime Bureau said of the increase in attacks off Benin.
"The security arrangements in Nigeria have been beefed up and that may have forced or displaced the problem temporarily to Benin."
He called the Nigeria-Benin joint patrols "a very welcome move -- exactly the type of reaction we need to see."
The problem was illustrated again on Friday with the announcement that a tanker hijacked off Nigeria nearly a week before with 20 Eastern European crew members had been released.
Details of the release were unclear, but the Georgian foreign ministry said negotiations had occurred, with the crew including 12 Georgian seamen. The crew was unharmed, officials said.
While the surge in incidents is a reminder for some of the explosion in pirate attacks in recent years off the coast of Somalia on the eastern side of the continent, there have been key differences.
The West African pirates involved in the recent attacks have so far not seemed to be after ransom payments. Instead, fuel cargo has been stolen for sale on the region's lucrative black market and ships have been robbed.
That is not to say the incidents have not been dangerous. The pirates tend to be heavily armed, and crews have been held hostage and beaten.
Benin officials say they are taking the problem seriously, and President Thomas Boni Yayi is "determined" to deal with the situation, a source in the presidency said.
"Benin will never become Somalia," said Jean-Michel Abimbola, minister of maritime reform.
Yayi recently visited Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan and is to meet French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris in late October. French firm Bollore was in 2009 given the concession for the container terminal at the port at Cotonou.
In August, the French and US navies provided training for Benin in a bid to boost its capacity, while France has also made two navy officials available to help.
China provided a grant of four million euros in September for the purchase of a patrol boat.
"France is accompanying Benin in this battle because the phenomenon of piracy is an international concern," said Jean-Paul Monchau, the French ambassador in Benin.
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