Piracy falls worldwide but Nigeria is a concern: watchdog

An armed Somali pirate walks along the coastline near Hobyo in 2010 (AFP Photo/MOHAMED DAHIR) (AFP/File)

Kuala Lumpur (AFP) - Pirate attacks on the high seas continue to fall but a global watchdog warned Wednesday of "unacceptable violence" by seaborne bandits off West Africa.

The International Maritime Bureau (IMB) said in its quarterly report that it recorded 37 incidents of piracy and armed robbery at sea worldwide in the first three months of 2016, down from 54 in the same period last year.

World piracy has been on the decline since 2012 after international naval patrols were launched off East Africa in response to a spate of violent attacks by mostly Somali-based pirates.

But the focus of concern has shifted to the waters off oil-rich Nigeria, it said.

Between January and March 10 attacks were reported off the country's coast -- typically involving armed pirates stealing cargoes of fuel oil -- and 44 ship crew members were abducted.

"Reports in the last quarter indicate unacceptable violence against ships and crews in the Gulf of Guinea, particularly around Nigeria," said Pottengal Mukundan, director of the London-based IMB.

Incidents in Southeast Asia dropped sharply following a spike in attacks against mostly small fuel tankers last year, with the IMB crediting enforcement action by Malaysian and Indonesian authorities.

Just six incidents were reported in the region in the first quarter compared to 30 in the same period last year.

However, the IMB's Kuala-Lumpur-based Piracy Reporting Centre issued an alert advising ships to exercise extreme caution in waters between the southern Philippines and eastern Malaysia following a trio of recent attacks by heavily armed men who took several crew hostage.

Authorities have yet to say who is suspected, but Philippine-based Islamic extremists have for years periodically taken hostages from nearby Malaysian shores.

Eighteen Indonesian and Malaysian sailors abducted over the past month are believed held by the Abu Sayyaf group in the southern Philippines.