updated 11/16/2008 1:08:17 AM ET 2008-11-16T06:08:17

A South Korean foreign Ministry official says gunmen have hijacked a Japanese cargo ship carrying 23 crew, including five South Koreans, off the coast of Somalia.

The condition and safety of the crew were not immediately known. The official said he has no information on whether the gunmen were asking for ransom for the sailors' release.

Somalia, which has had no functioning government since 1991, is the world's top piracy hotspot. It is located along the Gulf of Aden, which connects the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean and is one of the world's busiest waterways with some 20,000 ships passing through it each year.

Somali pirates are trained fighters, often dressed in military fatigues, using speed boats equipped with satellite phones and GPS equipment. They are typically armed with automatic weapons, anti-tank rockets launchers and various types of grenades.

In October, 22 sailors — eight South Koreans and 14 citizens of Myanmar — were released following a month of captivity after their South Korean shipping company paid a ransom to Somali pirates.

South Korea has said it is considering dispatching navy vessels to waters off Somalia to fight rampant piracy.

NATO has sent three ships to the Gulf of Aden to help the U.S. Navy in anti-piracy patrols and to escort cargo vessels.

The European Union has said at least four warships backed by aircraft will begin policing the dangerous waters in December. The EU flotilla will eventually take over the NATO patrols.

Despite the increased security, attacks have continued unabated off Somalia. There have been more than 80 attacks this year in the African waters.

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 This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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