updated 2/4/2008 10:48:09 AM ET 2008-02-04T15:48:09

A Danish-owned tug boat with a British captain, an Irish engineer and four Russian crew members was seized off Somalia's northeastern coast and a ransom has been demanded, the ship owner and a Somali official said Monday. The U.S. Navy said it had ships in the region of the latest act of piracy off Somalia.

All crew members on the Svitzer Korsakov, a Russian-built ship, were believed to be unharmed, said Pat Adamson, a London-based spokesman for the Danish ship owner, Svitzer. He said the ship was at anchor in Somali waters on Monday, three days after it was hijacked.

Adamson said his company was in contact with the pirates and crew, and it appeared the crew was well.

"The morale is good. They're getting sleep, they're getting food. That's where we are at the moment," he said.

Abdulahi Sa'id Awyusuf, chief of the coastal village of Eyl in northeast Somalia's semiautonomous Puntland region, said pirates holding the ship off his village contacted Eyl officials, "saying they would release the ship once ransom of thousands of U.S. dollars is paid, but they did not specify the amount."

Puntland-based SBC radio aired an interview with an unnamed man identified as a spokesman for the pirates who said the crew was well and that everyone would be released when a ransom was paid. He said the pirates also seized an Omani fishing vessel and would release that, too, when ransom was paid.

U.S. Navy Commander Lydia Robertson said Monday that U.S. ships were in the area as part of "continued efforts" with coalition partners from various countries "to stop a very disruptive activity."

"As always, our goal is safe return of the ship and the crew," Robertson said, refusing to elaborate on U.S. response to the latest hijacking.

U.S. Navy seeks to combat piracy
The U.S. Navy has led international patrols to try to combat piracy in the region. In one incident last year, the guided missile destroyer USS Porter opened fire to destroy pirate skiffs tied to a tanker.

Piracy is increasingly common along Somalia's 1,880-mile coast, which is the longest in Africa and near key shipping routes connecting the Red Sea with the Indian Ocean. Wracked by more than a decade of violence and anarchy, Somalia does not have its own navy and the transitional government formed in 2004 with U.N. help has struggled to assert control, allowing pirates, many linked to powerful clans, to operate a hijacking-for-ransom industry almost at will.

Adamson, spokesman for the Danish ship owner, declined to give any details on negotiations with the pirates, citing concerns for the safety of the crew. Adamson said he did not know how many pirates were aboard the ship, or what weapons they were carrying. "I would assume they're armed," he said.

Adamson said the 115-foot ship was newly built in St. Petersburg, Russia, and was on its way to Sakhalin Island between Japan and Russia.

Abdirahman Mohamed Bangah, Puntland's information minister, urged U.S. and other naval forces to help.

"Puntland is not in position to safeguard (its) long coastline," Bangah told The Associated Press by phone. Puntland has few security personnel and no coast guard.

The International Maritime Bureau, which tracks piracy, said in its annual report released earlier this year that global pirate attacks rose by 10 percent in 2007, marking the first increase in three years as sea robbers made a strong comeback, particularly off Somalia. Last year, Somali pirates seized more than two dozen ships off the country's coast.

"We are very concerned about pirate attacks" off Somalia, Noel Choong, head of the International Maritime Bureau's piracy reporting center in Malaysia, told The Associated Press Monday. "It's very dangerous. We're advising ships to maintain a vigilant watch."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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