Suspected Somali pirates attacked an Italian-owned cargo ship on Monday as it headed for Kenya's Mombasa port through one of the world's most dangerous waterways, a regional maritime group said.
Andrew Mwangura, director of the East African Seafarers Assistance Programme, said the MV Jolly Turchese was attacked by gunmen believed to be pirates off the shore of Somalia after bringing general cargo through the Suez canal.
An Italian foreign ministry official said the government had no information about the incident or evidence of an attack.
Mwangura, saying the sketchy information came from shipping sources in the region, told Reuters: "These must be Somali pirates. We don't know how many crew are on board."
He added it was unclear if the ship, en route to Kenya's Mombasa port, had been captured or escaped.
Methods of attack
Since Somalia collapsed into anarchy in 1991, pirates have taken advantage of the power vacuum and chaos on shore to hijack ships and demand ransoms with relative impunity.
A brief lull during last year's six-month Islamist rule of south Somalia — which deterred the pirates — ended earlier this year. Since then a spate of attacks have followed.
The pirates generally use speedboats for early morning attacks, and sometimes justify their actions as defending Somali waters against illegal fishing vessels and toxic dumping.
Mwangura said some of the cargo on the Italian ship was headed for an "important diplomatic mission" in Nairobi.
"But we don't know which one and whether this was known by the attackers," he said. "The report of the attack only reached us this morning.
Last week, pirates left a Japanese chemical tanker they had been holding since October after U.S. Navy ships cornered them off north Somalia and helped negotiate an end to the standoff.