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Pirates seize oil tanker in Ivory Coast port, vessel turns up off coast of neighboring Ghana

Armed men have hijacked a tanker carrying 5,000 tons of oil from an Ivory Coast port and taken it off the coast of Ghana, though its precise whereabouts are unknown, government authorities and maritime officials said Monday.

The Panamanian-flagged vessel ITRI was first seized Wednesday as the tanker was preparing to deposit oil at the port of Abidjan, Ivory Coast's commercial capital, said a statement from the Ivory Coast government -- communicating for the first time on the case only Monday.

The statement said officials located the vessel off neighboring Ghana, and that authorities were mobilized.

The tanker, with 16 crew members aboard, was listed as missing, said Noel Choong, head of the International Maritime Bureau's pirate reporting center in Malaysia. He could not release information about the nationalities of the crew, but said in many previous cases, the pirates released the crew after they had siphoned out the oil and obtained any valuable cargo.

The ship initially had trouble docking because a sand storm reduced visibility, a government statement said. Later, the ship's captain radioed the port manager to report difficulty maneuvering. Shortly afterward, contact was lost with the vessel. Then ship consignee Koda Maritime informed port officials that armed men had taken control of the tanker.

Most hijackings in the region occur near oil-rich Nigeria. The first recorded vessel hijacking off Ivory Coast was in October when 14 men armed with knives and AK-47s boarded a tanker carrying 30,000 tons of gasoline. The crew was later released unharmed.