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A French tanker with 19 Togolese crew on board has been hijacked off Ivory Coast, port authority officials in the economic capital Abidjan said Monday, amid concerns the area was becoming a new pirate hotspot.
"The boat was hijacked in international waters," Alexis Guie, in charge of communication at the port, told AFP. The International Maritime Bureau said earlier that a French tanker disappeared at the weekend off the coast of the west African country, apparently in an act of piracy.
The French government said that 19 Togolese crewmen were aboard the Gascogne tanker ship, which was sailing under a Luxembourg flag.
Paris said it had yet to receive any demands from the pirates.
"It's very worrying," Frederic Cuvillier, the French minister for transport and the maritime sector, told reporters in France, adding that the defence ministry had been "mobilised", without elaborating.
"When a boat is hijacked more than 300 kilometres (185 miles) from the Ivorian coast, that can't be in our waters," Guie said, adding that Ivorian authorities had "no information" about the incident.
The owners of the tanker lost communication with the ship on Sunday, Noel Choong, head of the IMB's Kuala Lumpur-based piracy reporting centre, told AFP, adding that the maritime watchdog had issued a warning to ships.
The latest hijacking marks the third such incident in recent months in Ivory Coast after pirates seized a Panama-flagged oil tanker anchored in Abidjan last month, and hijacked a Greek tanker in the same city in October, looting the vessel before releasing it.
"It appears pirates are moving towards the Ivory Coast because Nigeria and Benin have increased patrols in the Gulf of Guinea," Choong said.
The Luxembourg government said it had been informed of the incident on the Gascogne tanker ship by the owners of the vessel, the French group Sea Tankers.
"The safety of the crew and the vessel are the first priority," Sea Tankers said in a statement.
The Gulf of Guinea, which includes waters off Nigeria, Africa's largest oil producer, recorded 62 pirate attacks in 2012, including hijackings, kidnappings and killings.
Choong said a suspected pirate mother ship was sighted during an attack off Nigeria last Thursday.
He added that attacks in the Gulf "are happening more frequently than before", revealing two other attacks on merchant ships in recent days, one of which left a seafarer with gunshot wounds.
The attacks have mostly taken place in Nigeria but they appear to be spreading to other areas.
Pirates usually target fuel cargo, loading it onto other ships to sell on the lucrative black market, rather than seeking a ransom to release ships.
The "armed groups" who carry out these attacks "know that there is not much oversight on this side of the Gulf of Guinea," said Colonel Mamadou Mariko, technical director of the Maritime Organisation of Western and Central Africa, based in Abidjan.
The growing pirate threat off Ivory Coast was becoming "urgent", he warned, calling on Abidjan to tackle the problem "head-on".