Pirates release oil tanker hijacked off West Africa

LONDON Mon Jul 22, 2013 8:17am EDT

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LONDON (Reuters) - Pirates have released an oil products tanker and its 24 Indian crew after it was hijacked off the Gabon coast last week, the vessel's operator said on Monday, in the most southerly attack yet off the coast of West Africa.

A surge in piracy in the Gulf of Guinea region including waters off Nigeria, Africa's No. 1 oil producer and a significant source of cocoa and metals for world markets, is jacking up costs for shipping firms.

Pirates seized the Maltese-flagged Cotton tanker on July 15 near Gabon's Port Gentil in the first reported attack in that area in the past five years.

Cotton's Turkish operator, Geden Lines, said on Monday the pirates had left the vessel in the early hours of the morning and its captain had resumed command.

"The master has confirmed that all 24 Indian crew members are safe and in good condition," Geden Lines said. "The vessel is now on her way to a secure port."

Unlike waters off the coast of East Africa, where ships can move past at high speed with armed guards on board, many vessels have to anchor off West African coastal nations, with little protection, making them a soft target for criminals.

Another difference between the two areas is that international navies are not engaged in counter-piracy missions off the Horn of Africa, not West Africa.

In a separate incident in the Port Gentil area, the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) watchdog said around 20 armed robbers in a speed boat approached and boarded a vessel in mid-July and stole items belonging to the crew before escaping. The IMB said there were no crew injuries or damage to the vessel in the attack.

"All vessels operating in the Gulf of Guinea should remain aware of and prepared for the risk of armed robbery, hijack and kidnap for ransom for the foreseeable future," security firm AKE said in a report.

(Reporting by Jonathan Saul; editing by Jane Baird)

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