LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — Pirates attacked and seized an oil tanker off the coast of Nigeria's largest city, the country's navy said Wednesday, kidnapping 23 sailors who were trying to hide from their assailants.
The pirates targeted the MT Abu Dhabi Star, which was anchored 80 kilometers (50 miles) off the coast of Lagos, the country's biggest port, said Commodore Kabir Aliyu, a spokesman for Nigeria's navy. The sailors onboard sent distress signals as the pirates boarded the ship Tuesday night, with their last message indicating they had locked themselves inside a panic room on the vessel, Aliyu said.
The oil tanker, flagged out of Singapore, is operated by Pioneer Ship Management Services LLC, a company with offices in Dubai. The company said in a statement that it lost radio contact with the tanker on Wednesday.
"Pioneer have since received contact from the crew onboard the vessel and can confirm that all crew members are currently reported to be safe and uninjured, but that the vessel has been boarded by suspected pirates," the statement read.
Pioneer said it had not received any ransom demands for its crew. The company said 23 sailors were onboard the vessel, but did not disclose their nationalities.
The attack mirrored two others carried out in recent days in waters off the coast of Togo. In both of those cases, the crew were released unharmed after pirates ransacked the vessels and stole the gasoline or oil onboard the ship, according to the International Maritime Bureau, which tracks piracy across the world.
Pirate attacks are on the rise in West Africa's Gulf of Guinea, which follows the continent's southward curve from Liberia to Gabon. Over the last year and a half, piracy there has escalated from low-level armed robberies to hijackings and cargo thefts. Last year, London-based Lloyd's Market Association — an umbrella group of insurers — listed Nigeria, neighboring Benin and nearby waters in the same risk category as Somalia, where two decades of war and anarchy have allowed piracy to flourish.
Pirates in West Africa have been more willing to use violence in their robberies, as they target the cargo, not the crew for ransom as is the case off Somalia. Experts say many of the pirates come from Nigeria, where corrupt law enforcement allows criminality to thrive.
Analysts believe the recent hijackings of tanker ships may well be the work of a single, sophisticated criminal gang with knowledge of the oil industry and oil tankers. Those involved in the hijackings may have gotten that experience in Nigeria's southern Niger Delta, where thieves tap pipelines running through the swamps to steal hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil a day.
Jon Gambrell can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.