updated 4/2/2009 3:57:46 PM ET 2009-04-02T19:57:46

A tourist yacht and its crew of seven has been hijacked by Somali pirates near the Seychelles islands off Africa's east coast, officials said Thursday.

The Indian Ocean Explorer had dropped off its contingent of tourists before it was seized, said Kirk Green, director of Aquatours, the London-based tour operator that books diving tours on the luxury yacht.

Green said he was told of the hijacking Wednesday by the British Navy and thought the boat had been taken then. But the U.S. Navy says the ship was taken either Friday or Saturday.

Green said the British Navy e-mailed him to say the boat would be taken to Harardhere, a pirate stronghold north of Mogadishu. Green said he was told to expect the ship to be held about three months.

"It's the first time it's happened to us, so it's a bit of a shock at the moment," he said. "Obviously one of the feelings we have is relief because none of our clients were taken. But on the other hand, we are extremely concerned about our crew."

Crew from Seychelles
All seven crew members are from the Seychelles, he said.

Green said he did not know the boat's exact location when it was seized or where it was headed when it was taken.

Diving, fishing and sightseeing tours on the seven-bedroom boat start at $3,000, and the majority of customers are British, he said. The ship can carry 14 passengers along with crew.

According to Aquatours' Web site, the ship is flagged in Panama, but the U.S. Navy says the boat is registered in the Seychelles.

Green said the converted oceanographic research ship was formerly Swiss-owned. The boat was recently resold, and he could not confirm the identity or nationality of the new owners.

"This is not a boat that transports crews around the world and is worth huge amounts of money," Green said. "This boat operates really for the love of it, and if we manage to break even at the end of the day, we're really lucky."

Piracy is rampant off Somalia, which has not had a functioning government for 18 years. In the last year, pirates have captured trawlers, small fishing boats, cruise ships and even a cargo ship laden with heavy weapons. Last week, pirates attacked a German military supply ship, which returned fire, pursued the seven pirates and then detained them with help of other ships participating in the anti-piracy mission off the Horn of Africa.

Despite such recent successes, piracy is still big business. Pirates have made off with up to $80 million in ransom in the past year, seizing 42 vessels off the country's 1,900-mile coastline along the Horn of Africa.

"I don't understand why the countries involved don't just go down there and sort it out once and for all," Green said.

YouTube plea from Seychelles leader
Seychelles President James Michel posted a somber five-minute clip on YouTube calling for support.

"Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families friends of the victims of these acts of aggression," he said. "Such incidents further reinforce the need for our nation to come together and offer each other support."

Somali pirates are common in the Gulf of Aden, through which 20,000 merchant ships a year pass on their way to and from the Suez Canal. But analysts say an increase in foreign warships patrolling the area has forced pirates to shift their operations east into the Indian Ocean, toward the Seychelles.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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