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Cotonou - Pirates attacked an oil tanker off the coast of west Africa, killing a Ukrainian officer before escaping with the contents of the ship's safe, the ship's owners and Benin's navy commander said Tuesday.
Commander Maxime Ahoyo said the officer on the Monrovia-flagged Cancale Star was shot dead when he confronted the pirates after they boarded the vessel in darkness 33km off the coast of Benin.
The tanker's captain, Jaroslavs Semenovics, said around six or seven pirates had approached the tanker in a speed boat.
"They came on deck, pointed a pistol to the head of one of the sailors, marched him to the cabin," Semenovics said.
"They asked me to open the safe and they collected all the cash," he added. He did not say how much was stolen.
The 230m Cancale Star was carrying 89 000 cubic metres of crude from Nigeria's Niger Delta, the captain said.
The tanker's owners Chemikalien Seetransport said in a statement issued from Germany that the vessel's chief officer, or second in command, "has tragically lost his life in a piracy attack off the coast of Benin in the early hours of November 24".
"It is not the chief engineer but the chief officer of the vessel," said Chemikalien's spokesman Cor Radings, contradicting Ahoyo who had earlier identified the Ukrainian officer as the chief engineer.
Medics aboard the vessel said four other crew members were wounded in the attack, one seriously.
Some of the crew managed to overpower one of the pirates and handed him over to police for questioning. The captured pirate said he was from a Nigerian border town.
The multinational crew of 24 includes Russians, Filipinos, Lithuanians and Ukranians, Ahoyo said, speaking on board the Cauris, a Beninese navy boat which went to the assistance of the tanker and managed to dock alongside it.
Piracy in oil-rich west African waters is on the rise, according to the International Maritime Bureau, with more than 100 cases last year.
Most attacks occur while ships are at anchor or close to the shore, unlike in east Africa, where Somali pirates have netted millions of dollars in ransoms in exchange for the release of ships captured hundreds of miles from the coast.
The IMB's Live Piracy Report has highlighted the risk to shipping in Tema, Ghana, and in the Lagos and Bonny River areas of Nigeria, immediately east of Benin.
It said that pirates have attacked and robbed vessels and kidnapped crews along the coast and rivers, anchorages, ports and surrounding waters.
Officials voiced fears earlier this year that west African pirates would copy the tactics of Somali gangs.
From January to September of this year, the International Maritime Organisation reported 160 acts of piracy off the coast of Somalia, including 34 hijacked vessels and more than 450 people made hostage.
The world's naval powers last year started deploying warships in the Gulf of Aden in an attempt to curb attacks by ransom-hunting pirates that were seen as a threat to one of the globe's most important maritime trade routes.
Pirate groups have since shifted their focus to the wider Indian Ocean, a huge area much more difficult to patrol, and started venturing as far as the Seychelles and beyond.