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LAGOS - Helicopters hover above a patrol vessel in Nigeria's frenetic Apapa port as attack boats zoom past. On the dock, drones emblazoned with the Nigerian flag sit ready to deploy – all part of a $195 million U.S.-backed "Deep Blue" initiative to deter pirate attacks in the world's most dangerous area for seafarers.
The more than 2.35 million square kilometre (910,000 million square mile) expanse of the Atlantic Ocean that borders some 20 West African nations is known as "pirate alley", where nearly all the world's kidnappings at sea now take place since the water off Somalia in East Africa has become more secure.
Bashir Jamoh, head of the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), said "Deep Blue" had stemmed recorded kidnappings in the second quarter, after a record 130 sailors last year, compared with five in the rest of the world.
(Graphic: Gulf of Guinea kidnappings at sea increase significantly - https://graphics.reuters.com/NIGERIA-SECURITY/PIRACY/znpneeewmvl/chart.png)
But there have already been 50 kidnappings logged this year and the U.S. navy is helping with training and European navies are assisting in patrols, a mark of their concern for a region that is a key global supplier of crude oil.
"If the threat to their ships is not addressed, the entire international trade is affected." Jamoh said.
Unlike in Somalia, which had no navy and limited government capability and thus allowed foreign navies to fire on ships and arrest pirates, only Nigerian security forces are allowed to be armed in the country's large territorial waters.
"Nigeria is going to take the lead," Jamoh said.
Lurking beneath the government's new show of maritime strength is poverty in the Niger Delta, where nearly all West Africa's pirates originate.
Pollution in the region where international and local firms churn out Nigeria's oil means people cannot farm or fish and 70% of its roughly 30 million people earn less than $1 per day, according to the United Nations, making piracy attractive.
The U.N. Officer on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC) said collusion between some members of the security forces and pirates as well as scant prosecutions for kidnappings must also be tackled.
"The issues that caused this in the Niger Delta have not been addressed," said Max Williams, chief operating officer at security firm Africa Risk Compliance. "They still have the weapons, they have the boats, they have the fuel to kidnap people from these vessels."
The Nigerian navy said this year it would strengthen measures to root out and punish security personnel who collude with kidnappers and criminals.
COST OF BILLIONS
Piracy is nothing new to Nigeria, but the number and range of kidnappings has shot up, with oil tankers, container ships and fishing boats at risk even 210 nautical miles offshore.