* Owner lost contact with the vessel on Sunday
* Ship believed hijacked by Nigerian pirates
* 17 crew members were on board
By Joe Bavier
ABIDJAN, Feb 4 Suspected Nigerian pirates have
hijacked a French-owned Luxembourg-flagged tanker along with its
17-member crew off Ivory Coast, Ivorian officials and the
International Maritime Bureau said on Monday.
The Gulf of Guinea area is second only to the waters off
Somalia for piracy and there has been a spate of violent attacks
in vessels in recent days, prompting the bureau to issue a
security alert for the region.
The Gascogne was the second vessel to be seized off Ivory
Coast in less than three weeks and the first to have been taken
so far from shore.
Many of the pirate gangs are offshoots of militant groups
that once operated in Nigeria's oil-rich Niger Delta and mainly
target ships carrying refined petroleum products that are easily
sold on the local black market.
Ivory Coast authorities said the Gascogne had been chartered
by South Korean petroleum transporter SK Shipping
. It had taken on 3,000 tonnes of diesel fuel in
Abidjan on Jan. 30 but had already off loaded a portion of its
cargo when it was seized on Sunday.
The 17-strong crew comprised seven Togolese, two Senegalese,
two Ivorians, one South Korean, one Chinese and four sailors
from Benin, said Bertin Koffi Tano, Ivory Coast's head of
maritime and port affairs.
"The ship was indeed hijacked in Ivorian waters," Tano said,
adding that the IMB, a division of the International Chamber Of
Commerce charged with fighting maritime crime, was tracking the
Gascogne off the coast of Nigeria on Monday.
"We don't know who (the attackers) are. We don't know what
kind of weapons they have ... We don't have the means to keep a
watch over Ivorian territorial waters," he said.
The IMB's Live Piracy Report said the Gascogne was sailing
70 nautical miles (130 km or 80 miles) south of Ivory Coast's
commercial capital Abidjan when it went missing.
SEA-Tankers, the ship's French owner, said it lost contact
with the vessel on Sunday morning.
Three tanker vessels have been targeted in attacks in the
Gulf of Guinea in the past five days. The two other incidents
occurred off the coast of Nigeria, with one attempted hijacking
claiming the life of a crew member early on Monday.
While attacks in the waters off Nigeria, Togo and Benin have
been commonplace for years, increased cooperation between
national authorities and more robust policing of territorial
waters have had some success.
However, analysts believe these efforts may be driving
Nigerian pirates to operate further from their home waters off
countries, such as Ivory Coast, with poorly equipped and trained
navies and coastguards.
Ivory Coast recorded its first vessel hijacking last October
when suspected Nigerian pirates seized a Bahamas-flagged tanker
carrying more than 32,000 metric tonnes of gasoline near
Abidjan's port. The 24 crew were later freed unharmed.
Gunmen attempted, but failed, to seize a ship anchored off
Abidjan's port in December, and last month pirates took control
of a tanker carrying 5,000 tonnes of fuel as it waited to unload
its cargo at Abidjan's tanker terminal.
"It appears that the Nigerian pirates are spreading. All of
these vessels were tankers carrying gas oil. They're all taken
back to Nigeria to siphon off the oil, then the crews are
freed," Noel Choong, head of the IMB's piracy reports division
based in Malaysia, said.
"This whole process takes about five or six days."