* Gulf of Guinea hard-pressed by piracy, kindapping
* United States constrained in efforts to help
* Attacks drive up security costs
DAKAR, April 15 (Reuters) - Africa's Gulf of Guinea nations lack the ability to tackle mounting threats from piracy and kidnapping while the United States, a major buyer of their oil, is restricted in its efforts to help them.
A myriad of local conflicts, heavily armed gangs and weak states along west and central Africa's coast have turned the Gulf Guinea, which will provide a quarter of U.S. oil within 5 years, into a minefield.
Attacks by gunmen operating in the mangrove-lined creeks of Nigeria's Niger Delta have slashed Nigeria's oil output by at least 20 percent and, according to executives, driven the annual cost of oil services-related security there to $3.5 billion.
But over the last year, other seafaring groups borrowing their tactics and firepower have taken attacks further afield, striking oil platforms, vessels, high-street banks and even Equatorial Guinea's presidential palace. [ID:nLF632157]
"The incidents of attacks outside Nigeria's territorial waters, especially the shadowy attack on Malabo, have raised eyebrows and concerns," Philippe de Pontet, Middle East and Africa analyst at the Eurasia Group, told Reuters.
"There is pretty serious concern in Washington and capitals elsewhere about the Gulf of Guinea," he said.
The region hosts Nigeria and Angola, sub-Saharan Africa's two largest oil producers, Gabon, Cameroon, the two Congos and Equatorial Guinea, an oil nation with aspirations in gas. Oil from land-locked Chad is also exported through the gulf.
Sub-Saharan Africa produced more than 9 million barrels of oil per day in 2008 with the Gulf of Guinea nations accounting for nearly 5 million of the total.
The U.S. National Intelligence Council says the region will provide 25 percent of American oil by 2015. According to the International Maritime Bureau, the waters off Nigeria are already the second most dangerous in the world after Somalia.
As in Nigeria, where militants claiming to be fighting for a greater share of the oil wealth are also accused of racketeering and selling oil on the black-market, the lines between political grievances and criminality in the gulf are blurred.
Assaults on banks in Benin, Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea point to organised crime. "They might call themselves freedom fighters but it is hogwash. It's about money," said one diplomat.
"They are learning tricks, getting arms from and, in some cases, mingling with the people in the Delta," he said.
Militants claiming to be fighting against the return of the the oil-rich Bakassi peninsula to Cameroon from Nigeria have sprung up, kidnapping oil workers. Analysts also question why gunmen who attacked Malabo in Equatorial Guinea in February hit the presidential palace rather than soft targets like banks.
"Its quite a tricky mix of operations. I don't think that it is very conclusive yet," said Hannah Koep, West Africa analyst at Control Risks. "(But) this perception of a spreading threat is definitely there."
Having watched violence in Nigeria from the sidelines, governments in the region are now acutely aware of the threat.
"We always thought we were very far from the Delta," said Gabriel Obiang Lima, Equatorial Guinea's vice energy minister.
In light of the Malabo attack, Gabon bolstered its border. Diplomats say Cameroon has replaced regular army soldiers in Bakassi with special forces answering directly to the president.
Angola, current chair of the Gulf of Guinea Commission, has called for a regional security mechanism to tackle shared threats. Nigerian and Cameroonian officials now often talk about cooperation on joint strategies.
But, in a region with simmering oil- and border demarcation disputes, coordination is tricky.
"We do as much as we can inside Equatorial Guinea. But our battle is very big ... If we can't do it with the neighbours, it doesn't help," Lima said, blaming Benin and Cameroon for not being more vocal about attacks on their territory.
The weakness of states in the region has allowed shadowy groups, at times operating off mother ships similar to those used by Somali pirates, to move easily in vast stretches of waters.
"Even if regional neighbours are committed to cooperating -- as they have claimed -- it will be very difficult to do it with the current navy capabilities," said Control Risk's Koep.
U.S. INTERVENING WITH HANDS TIED
In a region of former British, French and Spanish colonies, most prominent in efforts to boost local capabilities is the United States, which has a near permanent presence with ships training local security forces.
Peter Pham, a professor at James Madison University in the United States, says this should not be a surprise as the region is already supplying more oil to the U.S. than the Persian Gulf.
"In the longer term, the region is going to be essential," he said, citing an eventual global economic recovery, a lack of new oil and instability in the Middle East, and the continuing threat of conflict in Sudan.
The USS Nashville, a 17,000-tonne warship with 400 crew, is touring the region, hosting training courses on topics ranging from oil platform protection and fire-fighting to maritime law, intelligence gathering and hand-to-hand combat.
But in the Gulf of Guinea, the U.S. faces prickly issues such as sovereignty -- especially after plans to set up a military base in Africa received such a frigid welcome.
"The U.S. is being cautious in terms of its military footprint, even in the waters off Africa ... Once bitten, twice shy," said Eurasia's de Pontet. (Editing by David Clarke)
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