Libreville (AFP) - A tanker with 17 Georgian sailors onboard has been missing for a week off the coast of Gabon in the Gulf of Guinea, a notorious area for sea piracy, officials said Tuesday.
The ship "disappeared" from tracking screens on August 14, and the potential search area was between the Gabonese coast and the Sao Tome and Principe archipelago, a regional military source said.
Specialist websites list the 121-metre (396-feet) ship, the Pantelena, as a 7,000-tonne, 12-year-old dual-purpose oil or chemical tanker.
The vessel is Panamanian-flagged and owned by a Greek company, Lotus Shipping Co. Ltd.
Georgia's foreign ministry in Tbilisi, in a statement issued last Friday, said there were concerns for 17 Georgian sailors onboard and a search operation was being conducted with the help of the British maritime authorities.
Gabon lies on the southern part of the Gulf of Guinea -- the great bend in the coastline of West Africa -- where pirates are a major problem for shipping.
The Pantelena "turned off its locator beacon," a device that tracks a vessel's position by satellite, the military source said, adding that "the first thing that pirates do when they board a ship is to cut off this beacon".
But at this stage, it is premature to talk about an act of piracy because "it could be a simple transmission breakdown," the source added.
- 'Distress message' -
A crew member aboard a ship sailing between Gabon's capital Libreville and Port-Gentil, the country's economic hub, told AFP: "We received a distress message over the radio and we alerted the Gabonese navy."
A Gabonese navy official confirmed that it had "received an alert... about the Pantelena, but we didn't have enough information to intervene."
In Sao Tome and Principe, which is located about 260 kilometres (160 miles) from Gabon, the commander of the local coastguard, Joao Idalecio, said it had dispatched a patrol vessel with a crew of 30 to search for the tanker.
Maritime security is a major concern in the Gulf of Guinea, with more than 5,700 kilometres of coastline and 17 countries from Senegal to Angola, as it has become an epicentre of piracy since 2016 after the pirate threat diminished off the coast of Somalia.
In February, the MT Marine Express, a Panama-registered tanker with 13,500 tonnes of gasoline, was seized with its crew as it was anchored off Benin. The ship and crew were freed several days later.
Last month, the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) said that its specialist piracy reporting centre had recorded 107 incidents worldwide in the first six months of 2018.
"All 25 crew kidnappings reported this year have occurred over six incidents in the Gulf of Guinea, highlighting the higher risks in this area," the IMB said.
However, the true number of incidents in the Gulf of Guinea is believed to be "significantly higher," its report added.
The pirates' mode of operation has also evolved from so-called "bunkering" -- theft of material on the boat -- "to an increase in the taking of hostages for ransom," a Gabonese patrol commander Gael Mbanda told AFP in February.