LONDON - Piracy incidents nearly doubled across the globe in the first quarter of 2009 almost entirely due to an upsurge in attacks by gangs off the Somali coast, the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) said on Tuesday.

The London-based watchdog recorded 102 attacks worldwide in the first three months of 2009 compared with 53 in that period a year ago, with 61 attacks in the Gulf of Aden and off the east coast of Somalia compared with 6 in the first quarter of 2008.

Somali pirates have made millions of dollars in ransoms hijacking commercial vessels in the busy shipping lanes of the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean, despite patrols by foreign navies off the Somali coast, disrupting aid supplies and trade routes.

Twenty attacks were recorded off Somalia's east coast with 18 of those in March alone, which included four hijackings. That compared with seven incidents in the fourth quarter of 2008. The IMB said 41 incidents were reported in the Gulf of Aden region and 5 vessels hijacked.

A total of 34 vessels were boarded, 29 ships fired upon and nine hijacked worldwide, the IMB said.

In the majority of incidents the attackers were heavily armed with guns or knives, the watchdog said. Violence against crew members continues to increase.

Given the current state of the global economy, there are concerns that piracy may increase. Navies and coastguards must continue to maintain their physical presence, it said.

The IMB said apart from Somalia, Nigeria continued to be a high risk area with nearly all attacks related to vessels supporting and connected to the oil industry.

It said seven incidents had been recorded by the IMB in Nigeria, but added that unconfirmed reports indicated at least another 13 attacks had occurred. That compared with 10 incidents in the same period in 2008.

The IMB said only one incident was reported in the Malacca Strait off Indonesia's coast in the period, compared with 5 recorded in the same period a year ago.

The littoral states should be complimented for their continued efforts in maintaining and securing the safety of this strategic trade route, the IMB said.