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LONDON (Reuters) - Pirates have hijacked an oil products tanker with 24 crew on board off the Gabon coast, the vessel's operator said on Wednesday, as a surge in such attacks in West Africa's mineral-rich Gulf of Guinea threatens regional shipping.
The pirates are thought to have boarded the Malta-flagged Cotton tanker, carrying a partly loaded cargo of fuel oil, on Monday near Port Gentil, Gabon, in the first reported attack in that region in the past five years, Turkish operator Geden Lines said.
"The company is in contact with the families of the 24 Indian crew members on board and the appropriate authorities have been contacted," Geden Lines said in a statement.
The Gulf of Guinea, which includes Nigeria, Ghana and Ivory Coast as well as Gabon, is a major source of oil, cocoa and, increasingly, metals for world markets. International navies are not actively engaged in counter-piracy missions in the region.
"The attack occurred around 200 nautical miles (NM) further south than the previous most southerly attack, which was around 160NM southwest of Bonny Island (in Nigeria) on 26 April," security firm AKE said.
"It therefore marks a significant expansion of the geographical range of Gulf of Guinea piracy. It also demonstrates the regional nature of the illegal fuel trade, the supply of which tankers such as Cotton are generally hijacked for."
Unlike waters off Somalia and the Horn of Africa, where ships can move past at high speed with armed guards on board, many vessels have to anchor off West African coastal nations, with little protection, making them a soft target for criminals.
(Reporting by Jonathan Saul; Editing by Alistair Lyon)