By Jonathan Saul
LONDON (Reuters) -A Spanish navy ship is sailing at full speed towards a Maltese-flagged commercial vessel that may have been hijacked by pirates off Somalia, the European Union’s Somali counter piracy force said on Friday.
If confirmed, it would be the first successful hijacking involving Somali pirates since 2017 when a crackdown by international navies stopped a rash of seizures in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean.
EUNAVFOR’s joint operations centre in Spain said it received an alert on Thursday about the “alleged pirate-hijacked vessel” Ruen, which was approximately 500 nautical miles east of Socotra Island, off Somalia.
In Somalia’s breakaway Puntland region, a member of a group that helped organise raids on ships in the past told Reuters he had heard pirates had managed to seize a vessel.
“Six of my pirate friends managed to capture a ship and they will bring it to the coast of the eastern region of Puntland,” Mukhtar Mohamud said by phone from the coastal city of Qandala.
He did not name the vessel and Puntland’s maritime authorities had no immediate comment.
EUNAVFOR said the Spanish warship Victoria had been sent to the scene “in order to gather more information and evaluate further actions”.
“EUNAVFOR remains vigilant to this and other recent piracy-related events in the area of operations, the northwest Indian Ocean and the Red Sea.”
The force added that it was coordinating with the broader international naval Combined Maritime Force.
British maritime security company Ambrey said it believed the Ruen had been hijacked by pirates.
Earlier on Friday, Britain’s maritime body UKMTO said it had received a report from a ship’s security officer who believed the crew no longer had control of a vessel which was currently headed towards Somalia.
The Ruen is managed by Bulgaria’s Navigation Maritime Bulgare, according to data on public shipping database Equasis.
The vessel was last seen under way in the open sea sailing towards Somalia at 1426 GMT, according to ship tracking data on LSEG.
(Reporting by Jonathan Saul, additional reporting by Abdiqani Hassan in Garowe and George Obulutsa in Nairobi, Editing by William Maclean, Christina Fincher, Nick Macfie and Andrew Heavens)