Two U.S. citizens have been kidnapped by pirates off the coast of Nigeria, according to U.S. officials.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf confirmed Thursday that pirates had captured two crewmembers of the C-Retriever, a U.S. flagged ship in the Gulf of Guinea. The U.S. Embassy in Nigeria is working with the military's Africa Command and partner countries, as well as Africa Maritime Law Enforcement Program and the Africa Partnership Station for the safe return of the crew members.
Harf offered no further details on the ship or the crew. Website MarineTraffic.com reports a U.S.-flagged ship "C Retriever" was last reported docked the Nigerian port of Harcourt on Oct. 23. It has been in the Guinea Gulf area since Oct. 20, according to the site.
Rebels in the Niger Delta region, a rich source of oil, say they are in contact with the kidnappers and are able to ensure the safety of the two hostages.
The White House is monitoring the situation, said spokesman Jay Carney, and is concerned about "the disturbing increase in the incidents of maritime crime, including incidents of piracy off the coast of West Africa."
"We're monitoring the situation and we're seeking additional details," he said. "Our principal concern now is the safe return of two American citizens."
Maritime piracy off the coast of Africa has spiked in recent years, according to a United Nations analysis. Somalia and Nigeria are listed among the countries with the highest incidence of piracy. Unlike other previous hotspots such as Indonesia and Bangladesh that are on the decline, piracy in these African nations has been increasing in recent years.
Piracy expert Capt. Don Marcus, president of the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots, told CNN that for travel by sea in the region where the attack occurred, "The danger is extreme."
Many vessels in that region service oil platforms and are slow-moving. They are much more vulnerable to attack than cargo ships that traverse the waters around Somalia.
Pirates are increasingly targeting the oil-rich region. The International Chamber of Commerce reports there have been 30 reported incidents of piracy, including two hijackings in 2013 alone – almost triple the 11 reported incidents in Somalia, also a major hotspot for piracy.
This latest act of piracy in Nigeria comes a week after the release of the Hollywood movie "Captain Phillips," which documents the 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates 240 miles off the coast of the Horn of Africa. Merchant Marine Capt. Richard Phillips was taken hostage by the pirates in one of the ship's lifeboats, and was later saved by a team of U.S. Navy commandos.
Maritime Tracker says the C-Retriever was built in 1999 and has a maximum speed of 9.7 knots.