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Pirates seize oil tanker in Ivory Coast port, vessel turns up off coast of neighbouring Ghana

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ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast - Armed men have hijacked a tanker carrying 5,000 tons of jet fuel from an Ivory Coast port and taken it off the coast of Ghana, though its precise whereabouts are unknown, government authorities and maritime officials said Monday.

The Panamanian-flagged vessel ITRI was first seized Wednesday as the tanker was preparing to deposit the Jet A1 fuel at the port of Abidjan, Ivory Coast's commercial capital, according to a statement Monday from Ivory Coast's government — its first communication on the case. It said officials had located the vessel off neighbouring Ghana, without specifying.

Shipowner Brila Energy, a petroleum distributor based in Nigeria, said it was monitoring the situation.

"The vessel is still missing and the hijackers whose sole objective is to steal the cargo of Jet A1 on board the vessel are yet to make any demands," Chairman Rowaye Jubril told The Associated Press in an email. He said all 16 crew members were Nigerian, and said the possibility of the fuel leaking into the water was "remote" because the vessel had not been in any accident.

Noel Choong, head of the International Maritime Bureau's pirate reporting centre in Malaysia, said in many previous cases, the pirates released the crew after they had siphoned out the oil and obtained any valuable cargo.

The ship initially had trouble docking because a sand storm reduced visibility, a government statement said. Later, the ship's captain radioed the port manager to report difficulty manoeuvring. Shortly afterward, contact was lost with the vessel. Then ship consignee Koda Maritime informed port officials that armed men had taken control of the tanker.

Most hijackings in the region occur near oil-rich Nigeria.

The first recorded vessel hijacking off Ivory Coast was in October, when 14 men armed with knives and AK-47s boarded a tanker carrying 30,000 tons of gasoline. The tanker was released three days later in Nigerian waters with the crew unharmed, but the pirates allegedly made off with about 2,500 tons. The IMB said that attack was the farthest ever from Nigeria in the Gulf of Guinea, calling it a "potential game changer" in piracy in the region.

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Associated Press writer Jamey Keaten contributed from Dakar, Senegal.

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