By Abdiqani Hassan
BOSASSO, Somalia (Reuters) - Somali pirates have hijacked an Iranian fishing vessel with 15 crew members, a Somali official and a maritime expert said on Monday amid warnings that piracy might be making a comeback in the Indian Ocean.
Although there are still occasional cases of sea attacks, piracy near Somalia's coast had largely subsided in the past three years, mainly due to shipping firms hiring private security details and the presence of international warships.
The Iranian ship was taken on Sunday evening in waters off northern Somali city of Eyl, said Abdirizak Mohamed Dirir, director of the anti-piracy and seaport ministry in Puntland, a semi-autonomous region in Somalia.
"Pirates hijacked an Iranian-flagged fishing vessel with its 15 crew from near Eyl," Dirir told Reuters.
John Steed, East Africa region manager for the Oceans Beyond Piracy group, confirmed the hijacking and said the vessel was called Muhammidi.
Two other Iranian fishing ships were captured by suspected pirates in March. The 16 crew from one boat managed to raise anchor and escape in August, but the other ship and 26 crew remain in captivity.
Steed said there were three other unsuccessful sea attacks by Somali pirates in the past week, including one last night.
"This indicates that the level of illegal fishing is bringing the threat of return of Somali piracy ever closer," added Kenya-based Steed.
Somali officials say the decline in piracy in recent years has emboldened foreign-flagged illegal fishing vessels to plunder Somalia's fish stocks closer to shore, bringing them within reach of pirate gangs.
In a report published in October, the U.N. Somalia and Eritrea Monitoring Group, said it was "concerned that illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing by foreign vessels may re-establish the conflict dynamic with local fishing communities that contributed to the rise of piracy a decade ago".
The last outbreak of Somali piracy, at the end of the previous decade, cost the world's shipping industry billions of dollars as pirates paralyzed shipping lanes, kidnapped hundreds of seafarers and seized vessels more than 1,000 miles from Somalia's coastline.
(Additional reporting and writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Edmund Blair and Richard Balmforth)