Pirates have hijacked a Panamanian-flagged ship with 18 crew off the east coast of Africa, the latest in an increasing number of attacks, a Somali businessman said Tuesday.
A group of Somali businessmen called the Juba General Trading Company had hired the al-Mizan to carry cargo from the United Arab Emirates to Mogadishu, said Abdirisaq Abdulkadir, the head of the consortium.
Abdulkadir said there are 15 Indians, two Pakistanis and a Somali on board. He denied media reports that the ship is carrying weapons.
"The ship was carrying 3,000 tons of general business materials," he said. "It set out from Dubai on the 24th of October. We were expecting it on the 6th or 7th of this month but it did not arrive."
When the consortium called the ship, he said, a pirate answered the phone and said it had been hijacked.
A man who answered a satellite phone number provided by Abdulkadir on Tuesday identified himself as a pirate and said the bandits were demanding a $3 million ransom. The man refused to give his name for fear of arrest. He said the ship was captured 10 days ago about 60 miles off the Somali coast.
The latest capture means Somali pirates are holding 11 ships with more than 200 people being kept as hostages, including a British couple seized from their personal yacht late last month.
The high-seas hijackings have increased after the recent end of the monsoon season despite an international armada of warships deployed by the United States, the European Union, NATO, Japan, South Korea and China to patrol the region. U.S. drones launched from nearby Seychelles are also patrolling for pirates.
Somalia's lawless 1,880-mile (3,000-kilometer) coastline provides a perfect haven for pirates to prey on ships heading for the Gulf of Aden, one of the world's busiest shipping routes.
They use larger vessels as "mother ships" to tow their small, fast speedboats to attack ships up to 1,000 miles (1600 kilometers) from shore. Last year they seized more than 40 vessels.
The impoverished Horn of Africa nation has not had a functioning government for a generation and the weak U.N.-backed administration is too busy fighting an Islamist insurgency to arrest pirates.
Associated Press Writer Malkhadir M. Muhumed in Nairobi, Kenya contributed to this report.