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French tanker with 17 aboard likely hijacked by pirates off Ivory Coast

A French-owned oil tanker missing off Ivory Coast with 17 sailors on board likely has been hijacked, an official with an international piracy watchdog said Monday, in what may be the latest attack by criminal gangs targeting the ships to steal their valuable cargo.

Details remained scarce Monday about the fate of the ship, flagged in Luxembourg. The ship had been reported missing Sunday and officials believe it fell victim to the same pirates operating throughout the Gulf of Guinea, said Noel Choong, a spokesman for the International Maritime Bureau in Malaysia.

Choong declined to name the ship's owners or offer any other details. Navy and maritime officials in Ivory Coast could not be immediately reached for comment.

The presumed attack Sunday comes amid a series of escalating attacks in the Gulf of Guinea, which follows the continent's southward curve from Liberia to Gabon. On Monday, pirates attacked another oil tanker anchored off Nigeria's largest city, Lagos, shooting one of the crew members, Choong said. The sailor survived the attack and was taken to a Lagos hospital for treatment, he said.

In an attack Thursday off Nigeria's oil-rich southern delta, pirates attacked another tanker. In a sign of how violent the attacks have grown, the pirates fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the tanker during their assault, which missed the ship, the maritime bureau said. The crew suffered no injuries in the attack and their ship escaped, but it sustained damage from the gunfire, the bureau said.

Over the last year and a half, piracy in the Gulf of Guinea has escalated from low-level armed robberies to hijackings and cargo thefts. Last year, London-based Lloyd's Market Association -- an umbrella group of insurers -- listed Nigeria, neighboring Benin and nearby waters in the same risk category as Somalia, where two decades of war and anarchy allowed piracy to flourish.

Pirates in West Africa have been more willing to use violence in their robberies, as they target the cargo, not the crew for ransom as is the case off Somalia. Experts say many of the pirates come from Nigeria, where corrupt law enforcement allows criminality to thrive.

"The pirates target oil tankers because they are actually targeting the gas oil," Choong told The Associated Press. "We're talking about millions of dollars."

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