* Pirates move to less patrolled waters, further offshore
* Threat to Gulf of Guinea shipping seen growing
* International coordination needed to combat piracy - US
By Richard Valdmanis and Jonathan Saul
DAKAR/LONDON, Sept 21 (Reuters) - Nigerian pirate gangs are moving into the waters of neighbouring countries and attacking vessels further offshore after being driven from their coastal haunts by a military crackdown.
The shift to deeper waters mirrors one by their better-known Somali counterparts after pressure from international warships and raises the threat to shipping in the Gulf of Guinea, which is rich in oil and minerals.
Pirate attacks have spiked off the coast of Benin this year while dropping in neighbouring Nigeria, according to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) watchdog, and attacks may also be on the rise in Cameroon to the south.
“While Somalis are not coming to Nigeria with franchise kits, Nigerians do have smartphones and so can surf the Web and keep an eye on what the Somalis and other pirates are doing and incorporate inspired changes,” said Michael Frodl with U.S.-based consultancy C-LEVEL Maritime Risks.
“All this represents a growing menace to shipping off Nigeria, Benin, and other West African nations.”
London’s marine insurance market last month added Benin to its high-risk list, and the vast Gulf of Guinea region could become more risky for shipping, threatening a growing source of oil, metals and agricultural products.
“We believe that this is happening because the Nigerian navy and coastguard has clamped down heavily on piracy in their waters, forcing the pirates to move elsewhere,” said IMB manager Cyrus Mody.
A spokesman for Nigeria’s military Joint Task Force confirmed that intensified patrols and intelligence operations had led to a drop in piracy in Nigeria. Authorities had made 30 arrests in the past month, he said.
In the latest reported attack in Benin last week, pirates hijacked the Cyprus-flagged Mattheus I some 60 nautical miles offshore -- one of the furthest offshore grabs recorded in West Africa. Benin’s patrol boats were hours away and powerless to intervene.
Frodl said the pirates appeared to be moving further offshore not just to avoid coastal patrols “but also to take advantage of ships letting down their guard in waters assumed to be safer”.
“The attacks off Benin (...) represent the same sort of pivot we saw from the Somalis when the more ambitious and capable pirates shunned the Gulf of Aden a couple of years ago for the Somali Basin,” he said.
The IMB said there have been 19 pirate attacks off Benin this year, compared with none in 2010. Authorities in Cameroon, just south of Nigeria, have also complained of an increase in pirate attacks since 2010.
“These guys are like roaches -- once you try and stomp on them they are going to go somewhere else,” a U.S. official familiar with maritime security in the region told Reuters, asking not to be named.
Unlike off Somalia, West African pirates tend to focus on stealing cash and cargoes instead of kidnapping for huge ransoms. But experts say there have been cases of West African pirates being paid small ransoms to release crews.
The spread of piracy to new territory in the Gulf of Guinea has underlined the need for regional cooperation on maritime security, analysts and security officials said.
Phillip Heyl, the head of the U.S. Africa Command’s air and maritime programs, said U.S. military support for West African navies and coastguards -- which has included training and equipment -- was being adjusted.
“In the past, most of our efforts have been bilateral -- between us and a particular country,” he told Reuters. “Now we are focusing on a regional basis because the solution is regional. Events are picking up in Benin and Togo because Nigeria is stepping up its enforcement efforts.”
The French military is also boosting cooperation.
Military sources in Benin said France had deployed a surveillance frigate to Benin’s waters at the end of August. The French military is also planning anti-piracy training in Benin and Togo in the coming weeks.
The stakes are high for Benin, which depends on its port in Cotonou for some 40 percent of state revenues. A U.S.-funded program to double the port’s capacity could also be at risk, the U.S. envoy to Benin told Reuters last month.
Benin has asked the United Nations to consider sending an international force to help police the Gulf of Guinea, similar to the NATO and European Union operations to protect shipping from Somali pirates off Africa’s east coast.
It is also in talks with the United States and France over the possible purchase of boats and surveillance planes.
Separately, West African countries are discussing the creation of a regional counter-piracy force.
But concerns are also rising that the pirate gangs could move further west. Officials in Togo and Ghana have said they are boosting maritime security to address the threat.
“We are aware of the increasing piracy attacks in our neighbourhood and we are very much prepared to face any such attacks,” Ghana Defence Minister Joseph Henry Smith told Reuters.
“(...) we have constantly been reviewing our measures to safeguard our waters, most importantly to protect our oil installations.”
J. Peter Pham, Africa director for U.S. think-tank the Atlantic Council, said the pirates have no shortage of possible recruits, including former Nigerian rebels in the wake of a government amnesty.
“The attacks seem to be coming from independent criminal gangs composed mainly of, and certainly led by, Nigerians, with perhaps a smattering of other nationalities,” he said.
“The fact that the much-vaunted Niger Delta amnesty has benefited largely the leadership rather than the middle or lower ranks of insurgents (...) ensures a ready pool of potential recruits for criminal enterprises.” (Additional reporting by Joe Brock in Abuja, John Zodzi in Lome, Samuel Elijah in Cotonou, and Kwasi Kpodo in Accra; Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Robert Woodward)