WASHINGTON – Two Americans were taken hostage by pirates who attacked their ship off the coast of Nigeria, a U.S. official said Thursday.
The captain and chief engineer of the C-Retriever, a U.S.-flagged oil supply ship, were kidnapped in the attack early Wednesday in the Gulf of Guinea, according to news reports.
The ship is owned by Edison Chouest Offshore, a maritime company based in Cut Off, La. A company spokesman didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
The identities of the hostages weren't immediately known. The State Department said it was "closely monitoring" reports of the incident but offered no additional details.
The kidnapping highlighted the growing problem of piracy off West Africa, which has supplanted the coast of Somalia as one of the most dangerous sea lanes in the world.
The vast Gulf of Guinea borders 11 West African nations, many of them oil producers, and is one of the most important transit routes for oil imported by the United States. Nearly 30% of U.S. oil imports passes through the gulf, which is nearly the size of the Gulf of Mexico.
Unlike those off East Africa, pirates off West Africa generally don't aim to take hostages for ransom, experts say. West African pirate gangs typically focus on stealing cargo and siphoning fuel from oil vessels to sell on the region's large black market, according to the International Crisis Group, a research organization that tracks the issue.
The International Maritime Bureau, a shipping industry trade group, reported that there were three times more piracy incidents in the Gulf of Guinea than off the Somali coast in the first half of this year. So far in 2013, there have been 30 recorded incidents off West Africa, including two hijackings, according to the organization.
U.S. Navy vessels occasionally patrol the Gulf of Guinea, as do the British and French navies. The U.S. official declined to comment when asked whether the Pentagon was preparing military action in response to the kidnapping.