updated 10/22/2009 6:31:39 PM ET 2009-10-22T22:31:39

Somali pirates with automatic weapons seized a cargo ship off Africa's east coast and are holding its 26 crew members from India and Myanmar hostage, anti-piracy officials said Thursday.

The pirates captured the Panamanian-flagged MV Al Khaliq some 200 miles (320 kilometers) west of the Seychelles islands early Thursday, a statement from the European Union's anti-piracy task force said.

In response, Seychelles said Thursday it would deploy troops to its outer islands as a deterrent force to approaching pirate vessels.

Noel Choong, who heads the International Maritime Bureau's piracy reporting center in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, said Thursday's hijacking demonstrated a new trend: pirates actively targeting vessels very far off the coast during clear weather.

Third hijacking in a week
He said it was the third such hijacking in a week. Pirates hijacked a Singapore-flagged bulk container last Thursday and a Chinese cargo ship on Monday.

Choong said the pirates attacked the Indian-managed ship on Thursday with automatic weapons. Seychelles officials said 24 Indians and two men from Myanmar, the country also known as Burma, were on board.

The EU task force, Operation Atalanta, said pirates were unsuccessful in their hijack attempt of the Italian-flagged MV Jolly Rosso off the Kenyan coast on Thursday.

The violence brought the number of attacks off the coast of Somalia and the Gulf of Aden to 178 this year, with 36 ships hijacked. Pirates are holding seven ships and 165 crew members, Choong said.

Pirate attacks worldwide in the first nine months of 2009 exceeded the whole of last year's total because of more frequent raids in the Gulf of Aden and off the east coast of Somalia, according to the piracy reporting center.

Far more of this year's attacks have involved guns, the report said.

The number of attacks rose to 306 between January and September, surpassing the 293 incidents recorded throughout 2008, according to a statement released by the agency Kuala Lumpur.

Six hostages killed
Vessels were boarded in 114 cases and 34 were hijacked so far this year, with 661 crew taken hostage and six killed, the bureau said in its quarterly report.

The use of guns in the attacks more than doubled to 176 cases in the first nine months of 2009 from 76 in the same period of last year, the report added.

The higher number of attacks was due mainly to increased Somali pirate activity off the Gulf of Aden, one of the world's busiest sea lanes, and the east coast of Somalia, which combined accounts for 147 cases, the report said.

Somalia has been ravaged by violence and anarchy since 1991 and piracy has flourished off its coast, making the Gulf of Aden one of the most dangerous waterways in the world.

The International Maritime Bureau said Somali attacks decreased in the third quarter of 2009 compared to the first half of the year because of monsoon-related poor weather. However, the pirates have recently started to increase attacks after a period of quiet.

The pirates use sophisticated equipment and so-called larger "mother ships" to enable them to strike hundreds of miles offshore. The multimillion-dollar ransoms they share are a fortune in their impoverished country.

Among other nations that reported significant attacks over the same nine months, Nigeria had 20, Malaysia reported 14, Bangladesh had 12, while India and Peru recorded 10 each.

Somali pirates seized more than 40 vessels in 2008, pocketing an estimated $30 million in ransom.

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