Rome: Pirates hijacked an Italian cargo ship with six Italians, five Ukrainians and seven Indians on board at dawn on Tuesday off the coast of Oman in an area known for Somali pirate attacks, officials said.
The Enrico Ievoli, which was carrying 15,750 tons of caustic soda from the United Arab Emirates to the Mediterranean, was boarded by pirates at around 0400 GMT, the Naples-based owner of the ship, Marnavi, said on its website.
"There were 18 people on board. We are in close contact with the foreign ministry," Domenico Levoli, the director of Marnavi, told AFP.
"As far as we know, the Ievoli is currently in movement towards an unknown destination. We presume it's Somalia," he said. Levoli said the ship's Italian captain, Agostino Musumeci, had told him: "The pirates are on board but we are all fine."
A foreign ministry spokesman said the Italian Navy, which thwarted a pirate attack against the same ship in 2006 near Yemen, had been alerted.
"Together with the crisis unit, I am closely following the hijacking of the Ievoli," Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi said in a message on Twitter, calling for "strict discretion to ensure a positive outcome".
The Enrico Ievoli, which measures 138m in length, is the first Italian vessel to be captured after two others were released in November and December, reportedly following ransom payments.
The Savina Caylyn, an oil tanker with five Italians and 17 Indians on board, was freed on December 21 after more than 10 months in captivity.
The foreign ministry denied that the government had paid any ransom and said the liberation was the result of "constant pressure" on Somali authorities.
In November, the Rosalia D'Amato cargo ship with a crew of 21 was also released after seven months in the hands of Somali pirates.
Also in November, British and US commandos freed another Italian vessel, the Montecristo, with seven Italians, 10 Ukrainians and six Indians on board.
352 reported hijackings worldwide this year
According to the International Maritime Bureau, there were 352 reported hijackings worldwide between January and September - more than half of them carried out by Somali pirates, who often operate far from Somalia's shores in the Red Sea or the Indian Ocean.
The EU's anti-piracy mission NAVFOR said earlier this month that Somali pirates were holding 199 people hostage as part of their ransom business.
Since the start of the EU NAVFOR mission in December 2008, 2,317 seamen have been held hostage for an average of nearly five months.
"This humanitarian tragedy is especially pertinent over Christmas, a time when families normally gather to celebrate," NAVFOR said in a statement.
It said many hostages were tortured and abused and some killed by hijackers.
According to Ecoterra International, an environmental and human rights NGO that monitors regional maritime activity and also includes smaller vessels in its tally, pirates hold at least 43 ships and more than 400 seamen.