LOME — Pirates exchanged fire with security forces and hijacked a Greek-owned oil tanker with 24 Russian crew off Togo on Tuesday in the latest attack in the region, the International Maritime Bureau said.
The Isle of Man-flagged vessel, which was carrying gas oil, was seized 17 miles off the coast of the Togolese capital Lome, where it had reportedly been anchored, said Noel Choong, head of the IMB's piracy reporting centre.
The hijackers exchanged fire with a Togo navy patrol boat that answered a distress call but managed to elude the patrol by steaming off aboard the tanker called Energy Centurion, Choong said.
"Normally in this area they will hold the ship for four or five days, ransack it and steal part of the cargo, usually gas oil," Choong said.
Togo officials said the pirates fled toward neighbouring Benin after the country's navy intervened following a distress call at around 2:00 am (0200 GMT).
"Our patrol boats went to rescue it and there was an exchange of fire between the pirates and our men," said military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Inoussa Djibril.
An official with the vessel's Athens-based operator, Golden Energy Management, said Tuesday afternoon that the tanker remained in the hands of the pirates and there had been no word from the crew.
"In that area, it is not like off of Somalia," the official said.
"They aren't pirates who want ransom, but thieves who take control of vessels to take the cargo. Because of that, we hope that the vessel will be quickly released once the gas oil it is transporting is siphoned off."
Choong said that the perpetrators could be from the same syndicate that hijacked a UK-operated oil tanker on August 19. That vessel, along with 18 people on board, was released Thursday off Nigeria.
None of those on board were injured in that incident, Choong said, but the pirates made off with some of the gas oil that the vessel was carrying.
The Malaysia-based IMB has repeatedly warned ships plying the Gulf of Guinea off the west coast of Africa to be vigilant and called on authorities to step up patrols, last year saying the region was emerging as a new piracy "hot spot".
The area has seen 36 attacks, including several hijackings, kidnappings and killings, so far this year. Pirates usually target fuel cargo, loading it onto other ships to sell on the lucrative black market.
Nigeria and nearby Benin launched joint patrols last year in a bid to combat the problem.
Piracy has long been a problem off Nigeria, Africa's largest oil producer and most populous nation, but it has now spread to neighbouring nations.
Benin, located between Togo and Nigeria, last year recorded a sharp uptick in pirate attacks.
Analysts have suspected that one or several organised gangs, possibly from Nigeria, have been behind the spate of attacks.