Pirates kidnapped two foreign sailors from a tanker off the coast of Nigeria's restive and oil-rich southern delta, a naval spokesman said Sunday, suggesting the crew worked in the black market trade of stolen crude from the region.
Commodore David Nabaida told The Associated Press that gunmen boarded the MV Eckhardt near Bonny early Friday morning. The pirates quickly took control of the vessel and kidnapped the tanker's captain and chief engineer before slipping off in the darkness, he said.
Nabaida said naval patrol boats continue to look for the sailors in the Niger Delta, a maze of creeks and mangroves about the size of South Carolina. The commodore said he didn't know the nationalities of the sailors, nor what company owned the tanker.
Militants upset about the region's unceasing poverty and polluted waterways have fought against foreign oil companies and government troops since an insurrection began in the Niger Delta in 2006. Violence has waned in recent months after a government-sponsored amnesty deal offered cash payouts and the promise of job training to gunmen roaming the region's creeks.
Now, there appears to be new tension in the region. The region's main militant group, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, claimed responsibility for a car bombing in the nation's capital Friday that killed at least 12 people. On Sept. 22, pirates operating off the delta's coast kidnapped three French oil workers and a Thai national. The workers have yet to be released.
In Friday's kidnapping, however, Nabaida said it appeared the ship ignored warnings from the navy to stay away from an area prone to kidnappings and remained close to the shore. He said that made authorities suspect the tanker took part in "bunkering" — when thieves tap into oil pipelines to steal crude. Boats then slip toward Nigeria's coast, load up on the stolen oil and travel to other countries to sell the oil to refineries.
Bonny light crude, drawn from the delta, can be easily refined into gasoline, make such thefts highly lucrative.
"Some of them go out there and conceal their identity and their movement," Nabaida said. "We can't be everywhere at the same time."
Nigeria, which is vying with Angola to regain its spot as Africa's top crude producer, is a major source of oil for the U.S.