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LONDON – Ankur Varma, third officer on the oil tanker M/V Cotton, opened his cabin door at five minutes to midnight on July 14 to find two men pointing AK-47s at him.

“They just pushed me into the cabin with the guns in my chest and they told me to stay silent,” Varma said in a phone interview from India.

“They were threatening, they were showing the guns, pointing at us. They took everything – everything that we had – including clothes, toiletries, electronics.”

They also took the ship’s cargo. The Maltese-flagged vessel was carrying about 10,000 tons of fuel oil belonging to France’s largest oil company when it was attacked by 15 pirates off the coast of Gabon in West Africa. The hijackers kept control of the tanker for seven days as they siphoned off the fuel.

The M/V Cotton was drifting 2.1 nautical miles off the Gabonese port of Gentil when it was attacked. The 24 crew members were finally released unharmed by the pirates, who claimed to be from Nigeria, Varma said. He’s considering a new line of work.

While Total eventually got its fuel oil back with the help of Ghana’s navy, Varma’s story is becoming increasingly typical as Africa’s west coast replaces Somalia as the world’s most piracy-prone area. The attacks, which are getting more frequent and more violent, threaten shipping in sub-Saharan Africa’s largest oil-producing region.

West Africa’s Gulf of Guinea had 40 piracy attacks in the first nine months of the year, compared with 10 incidents in waters around Somalia, according to data from the International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Centre. As well as stealing from ships, kidnappings are on the rise. Last month, two U.S. citizens were seized from a supply ship before being released after more than two weeks.

“Initially they were interested in holding the ships, stealing the cargo, taking this ship-crew’s possessions and money and leaving,” said Roy Paul, a director at the Maritime Piracy Humanitarian Response Programme. “This year, we’ve seen an increase in taking hostages” for ransom.

Nigeria, Gabon, Ghana and other countries around the Gulf of Guinea produce more than 3 million barrels of oil a day, or about one-third of Africa’s output, according to data compiled by BP. The region’s crude, often so-called sweet grades that are refined into high-value motor fuels, is shipped to refiners in the U.S., Europe and Asia. Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea are also leading liquefied natural gas exporters.

This year, piracy has spread through the region from Nigeria, where theft from ships has long been common; and ships are being attacked farther offshore, according to the International Maritime Bureau. Boardings or hijackings have been reported off Togo, Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone and Guinea.

Piracy’s rise in West Africa has been mirrored by its decline off Somalia, where kidnappings spurred a response from shipowners and western governments. The deployment of warships and the use of armed guards caused the number of incidents to plummet this year, officials said.