Pirates seized a merchant ship in the Red Sea and have taken it south towards Somali waters in the first successful hijacking in the region this year, maritime officials said on Sunday.
The vessel, identified as the MV Marzooqah, sent a distress signal on Saturday evening in the Red Sea and was then turned back to the Gulf of Aden, Andrew Mwangura, secretary general of the Seafarers Union of Kenya, told Reuters.
The number of attacks by Somali pirates dropped sharply in 2013, largely because of an international naval effort. But maritime experts have said the problem will remain as long as gangs operating out of Somalia are not disbanded on land.
Relative stability in Somalia in the past two years after 20 years of chaos and war has raised hopes that it could lead to a more permanent solution to a problem that has driven up shipping insurance rates, but it has yet to solve the issue.
“Now we are trying to follow this ship to try to find out which pirate group is holding them and what their demands are,” Mwangura said from the Kenyan port city of Mombasa.
He said the vessel was crewed by Indians, Egyptians and Syrians and boarded by a gang of eight or nine pirates and about five gunmen were still on board. The ship was also attacked in 2011 but had escaped that time, he said.
Mwangura did not say how may crew were on the ship.
The European Union Naval Force Somalia (EU NAVFOR) said it had information a merchant vessel had been attacked in the Red Sea, beyond its area of operation which lies further south, and the ship was under the control of pirates.
Lieutenant Commander Jacqueline Sherriff, an EU NAVFOR spokeswoman based in London, said the force would use its maritime patrol aircraft to investigate and would employ its naval assets once the ship entered its operational area.
The EU NAVFOR region of operations includes the southern tip of the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean areas.
There were 176 confirmed piracy attacks in the region in 2011 and 36 in 2012. Sherriff said the number fell to seven in 2013 and no ships were successfully seized.
This is in contrast to the International Maritime Bureau’s (IMB) figures on piracy off Somali last year. Two vessels were hijacked last year but were released within a day following naval action, IMB director Captain Pottengal Mukundan said last week.
“Because conditions in Somalia have not changed significantly or to any great extent we have been saying there is no room for complacency,” Sheriff said.