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Sailors kidnapped in pirate attack

Armed pirates raided a tanker off the West African coast and kidnapped 23 sailors, taking off with the vessel in waters that are increasingly at risk of piracy.

The International Maritime Bureau, which tracks piracy worldwide, said pirates boarded the tanker on Wednesday as it idled about 62 nautical miles from Benin's capital of Cotonou.

Pirates struck as the Cyprus-flagged vessel tried to transfer its cargo of crude oil to a Norwegian-registered ship, said Cyrus Mody, a manager at the bureau. The pirates sailed off with the crew to an unknown location, Mr Mody said.

The ship, Mattheos I, had a Filipino crew with Spanish, Peruvian and Ukrainian officers, said Serghios Serghiou, the director of Cyprus' Department of Merchant Shipping.

Mr Serghiou said Cyprus authorities and the ship's Spanish management company had not been able to confirm whether a hijacking took place. "The ship sent out the initial security alert, but unfortunately, we haven't been able to communicate with the ship," he said.

A spokeswoman for Spain's Foreign Ministry said Spaniards accounted for less than five of the hostages.

The pirates attacked the Norwegian ship at the same time, though the crew was able to lock themselves into a strongroom and wait for the attackers to leave, Mr Mody said.

Over the last eight months, piracy in the Gulf of Guinea has escalated from low-level armed robberies to hijackings and cargo thefts, according to the Denmark-based security firm Risk Intelligence.

Last month, London-based Lloyd's Market Association, an umbrella group of insurers, listed Nigeria, neighbouring Benin and nearby waters in the same risk category as Somalia, where two decades of war and anarchy have allowed piracy to flourish.

West African pirates have also been more willing to use violence - beating crew members, and shooting and stabbing those who get in the way. Analysts believe many of the pirates come from Nigeria, where corrupt law enforcement allows criminality to thrive.

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