LOME (Reuters) - Pirates attacked a Greek-operated oil tanker off the coast of Togo on Tuesday, the West African state's armed forces said, in the latest in a spate of attacks on shipping in the Gulf of Guinea.
Togolese forces, which learned of the attack at around 2 a.m. (0200 GMT), engaged the pirates in gunfire but they escaped and the tanker disappeared from sight, officials said. It was not clear whether the pirates had succeeded in seizing the vessel.
"Our patrol vessels went out to help the tanker and there was a gunfire between our forces and the pirates," said Colonel Inoussa Djibril, spokesman for the Togolese army chief of staff.
Ship operator Golden Energy Management said it did not know where the ship was and had not been able to contact the crew of around 20.
A company official in Athens said the attack had appeared to be an attempt to steal the 56,000 metric tons of gasoil on board rather than a kidnapping.
"It's not piracy, it's robbery," the official said.
A Togolese security ministry official said the attackers' vessel fled in the direction of neighboring Benin, but had no details on the whereabouts of the tanker.
"The Togolese Navy has ??contacted its counterparts in Benin and Nigeria. According to the latest information we have, the search is ongoing," said Djibril.
The Gulf of Guinea is a growing source of oil, cocoa and metals and spans more than a dozen countries running from Guinea in the north-west to Angola in the south and includes Nigeria, Ghana and Ivory Coast.
While not on the same scale as piracy off the coast of Somalia, the U.N. Security Council has raised concerned about an increase in piracy, maritime armed robbery and reports of hostage-taking in the region.
According to the International Maritime Bureau's website, there have been eight attacks and attempted attacks off the coast of Togo since January.
The United States, which is expected to buy a growing quantity of oil from the region, has sent trainers to help local navies deal with the problem.
U.S. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, in the Togolese capital for a conference on piracy, lauded efforts made by countries in the Gulf of Guinea to tackle the growing piracy problem which he said could disrupt trade if left unchecked.
"It is through efforts like this that we can come together to attack this common enemy that affects us all," Mabus told the conference.
(Reporting by Noel Kokou Tadegnon and John Zodzi in Lome and Renee Maltezou in Athens; Writing by Mark John and Bate Felix; Editing by Andrew Roche and Robin Pomeroy)