Armed attackers have boarded an oil tanker and forced its Sri Lankan crew to change course towards the northeastern Somali coast, in what could be the first pirate attack since 2012.
After sending a distress signal on Monday afternoon, the assailants boarded the Aris 13, taking its eight Sri Lankan crew members hostage and forcing the vessel to divert course.
"What we know for sure is that a small tanker has been attacked and has diverted course," John Steed, a former British army officer who heads the Horn of Africa section of the Oceans Beyond Piracy NGO, said Tuesday.
"Whether this is a pirate attack needs to be confirmed. For example, we do not know what the demands of those men are. But this looks pretty much like the old piracy attack scenario," he said.
The Aris 13 was seized on Monday with eight Sri Lankan crew members on board. Earlier reports said the vessel was Sri Lankan-flagged, but the foreign ministry in Colombo denied the claim.
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"The ministry is taking action to verify the alleged incident, and initial enquiries have revealed that while the vessel involved is not registered under a Sri Lankan flag, it has an eight-member Sri Lankan crew," it said in a statement on Facebook.
According to the Marine Traffic website, which lists the movements of ships around the globe, the Aris 13 is a Comoros-flagged vessel.
The tanker was carrying fuel from Djibouti to Mogadishu when it was seized. Its crew sent a distress signal on Monday afternoon, said Steed, who helped secure the release of 26 hostages in October 2016.
"Yesterday afternoon, the ship reported that it was followed by two skiffs. After that, it went silent and the owner of the ship was not able to get into contact," he said.
"There has not been an attack of a commercial ship by Somali pirates since 2012," he added.
The Aris 13 was reported forced to dock near the town of Alula on the Somali coast.
"Armed men are holding the boat and its crew near Alula," Muse Mohamed, a coast guard official in northeastern Somalia’s semi-autonomous region of Puntland, told AFP on Tuesday.
A traditional chief in the region, Abdihakim Mohamed Jama, contacted by phone said more than 20 men, heavily armed, were on board the tanker and that the suspected pirates "are claiming to be fishermen".
Somali pirates began staging waves of attacks in 2005, seriously disrupting a major international shipping route.
The epidemic, which in 2012 cost the global economy $5.7 billion to $6.1 billion, prompted interventions by the United Nations, the European Union and NATO.
Many commercial shippers began hiring private armed guards for their vessels.
At the peak of the piracy crisis in January 2011, 736 hostages and 32 boats were held.
Though anti-piracy measures ended attacks on commercial vessels, fishing boats have continued to face assaults.