Pirates seized an oil tanker off the coast of Nigeria's southern delta, kidnapping the crew in a bid to steal ship's cargo in the latest hijacking targeting the region, private security officials said Thursday.
Gunmen boarded the MT Halifax as it sat in waters off the coast of Port Harcourt, the main city in the oil-rich Niger Delta, the officials said.
The pirates took over control of the ship and sailed off into the waters of the Gulf of Guinea, and are holding onto the crew as they offload the crude oil in the ship's hold, the officials said.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to The Associated Press as they were not authorized to discuss the seizure with journalists.
It remains unclear how many crew members were taken or if any have been injured. The Halifax, registered in Malta, is managed by Ancora Investment Trust Inc. of Greece. An employee who answered a telephone call to the company's office in Athens declined to comment Thursday, saying someone would be able to discuss the hijacking Friday.
A profile of the ship on Ancora's company website identified the nationalities of those onboard as Filipino and Indian, with an Italian ship master.
Commodore Kabir Aliyu, a spokesman for Nigeria's navy, declined to immediately comment.
The attack is just the latest to target West Africa's Gulf of Guinea, which follows the continent's southward curve from Liberia to Gabon. Over the last eight months, piracy there has escalated from low-level armed robberies to hijackings and cargo thefts.
In August, 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.
While pirates in West Africa have been more willing to use violence in their robberies, the latest string of pirate attacks have seen crews typically let go unharmed after the crude oil is stolen from the ships. Analysts believe many of the pirates come from Nigeria, where corrupt law enforcement allows criminality to thrive.
However, the recent oil tanker attacks appear to be committed by a single, sophisticated criminal gang, said Graeme Gibbon-Brooks, the managing director of Dryad Maritime Intelligence Service. Finding an oil ship in the ocean, then being able to offload to crude oil into another ship requires technical knowledge and experience, he said.
Those involved in the hijackings may have gotten that experience in the Niger Delta, where thieves tapping pipelines running through swamps steal hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil a day.
"This is a carbon copy of a crime at sea that we're seeing on shore," Gibbon-Brooks said.
Jon Gambrell can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.