By Joe Bavier
ABIDJAN (Reuters) - A Luxembourg-flagged, French-owned petroleum products tanker hijacked off Ivory Coast at the weekend has been released, and its crew of 17 are safe, the vessel's owner said on Wednesday.
SEA-Tankers, which owns the vessel Gascogne, lost contact with the ship around 130 km (80 miles) off the coast on Sunday in what the International Maritime Bureau later said was an attack by Nigerian pirates.
It was the second tanker hijacking in Ivorian waters in the last three weeks.
Armed hijackings have also been on the rise in the Gulf of Guinea to the west, which is second only to the waters off Somalia for piracy.
However, policing of the waters off Nigeria, Benin and Togo is increasing and Ivory Coast, with a poorly trained and equipped navy, is becoming a new target for Nigerian pirates.
"SEA-Tankers are pleased to report that product tanker Gascogne has been released," the company said in a statement.
"All 17 seafarers are reported safe." It said two injured crew were being taken care of.
Ivorian authorities had previously said the crew comprised seven Togolese, two Senegalese, two Ivorians, one South Korean, one Chinese and four sailors from Benin.
The company gave no further details on how the two men had been injured or the circumstances of the Gascogne's release.
France's Foreign Ministry said the tanker had been released late on Tuesday after the pirates took it to Forcados in Nigeria and siphoned off around 200 metric tonnes (220.46 tons) of its cargo of diesel fuel. It said the ship was now heading for Lome in Togo.
Many Gulf of Guinea pirate groups are offshoots of militant organizations that once operated in Nigeria's oil-rich Niger Delta but have since signed an amnesty agreement with the government.
"A LOT OF PROFIT"
Unlike Somali pirates who hold vessels and their crews for ransom, Nigerian groups mainly target ships carrying refined petroleum products that are easily sold on the local black market.
"If you take 3,000 tonnes (of fuel), the profit can easily be around $2 million," said Thomas Horn Hansen, an analyst specializing in Gulf of Guinea piracy for the maritime security intelligence company Risk Intelligence.
"Comparing it to Somalia, it's a lot of profit for not having to hold the ship for very long."
Chartered by the South Korean petroleum transporter SK Shipping, the Gascogne took on 3,000 tonnes of diesel fuel in Abidjan on January 30, according to Ivorian officials.
However, it had already offloaded a portion of its cargo when it was seized four days later.
Three tankers have been targeted in attacks in the Gulf of Guinea in the past week, prompting the International Maritime Bureau to issue a security warning for the region.
Two of the incidents occurred off Nigeria, with one attempted hijacking claiming the life of a crew member early on Monday.
Ivory Coast recorded its first vessel hijacking last October when a Bahamas-flagged tanker carrying more than 32,000 tonnes of gasoline was seized near Abidjan's port. The 24 crew were later freed unharmed.
Gunmen also attempted, but failed, to hijack a ship at anchor in December. Last month, pirates took control of a tanker carrying 5,000 tonnes of fuel as it waited to unload its cargo at Abidjan's tanker terminal. It was later released near the Nigerian port of Lagos.
(Additional reporting by Gerard Bon in Paris; Editing by Oliver Holmes)