WORLD> Europe
Pirates hijack fishing boat with 36 crew members
Updated: 2009-10-02 21:19

MADRID: Pirates hijacked a Spanish tuna trawler with a 36-member crew Friday in the Indian Ocean, officials said.

The ship Alakrana sent out distress signals advising of a pirate attack and since then its owner has not been able to communicate with it, said Echebastar Fleet, the firm that owns the ship.

Two planes from Luxembourg, taking part in an EU anti-piracy flotilla, flew over the ship and saw armed people aboard, said Pilar Unzalu, the Basque region's fisheries and agriculture minister. Unzalu said she had no indication that anyone among the crew was hurt in the hijacking.

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The Alakrana is based in the Basque port of Bermeo.

The ship was 415 miles (670 kilometers) from the Seychelles islands, Unzalu said. Company executives were headed for the Spanish Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, Echebastar Fleet said.

A company official speaking on condition of anonymity said she did not know if a ransom demand has been made.

The Spanish government has begun to contact families of crew members and formed a crisis committee made up of members of the foreign affairs, defense, environment and other ministries.

"The government's priority at this time, as you can imagine, is to guarantee the crew's safety," Deputy Prime Minister Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega told a news conference after a Cabinet meeting.

It was the second attack in less than a month against the Alakrana. On September 4, while operating in waters off the Seychelles, the vessel dodged an attack by taking evasive action, the owner said.

In April 2008, a Basque tuna boat was hijacked by pirates off Somalia's coast and held for six days until a reported $1.2 million ransom was paid. Another Spanish trawler escaped a hijacking attempt in September 2008.

Spanish navy ships and a reconnaissance plane are also taking part in the EU anti-piracy flotilla.

Spanish ship owners have been clamoring for the government to post marines on fishing vessels, as France does, but the government has said it cannot do this under Spanish law.

Instead, the Defense Ministry gave companies permission last month to hire private security guards armed with high-powered rifles. The ministry had previously given the go ahead for private security guards armed with pistols. But this was soon seen as insufficient firepower against bandits sometimes armed with weapons such as rocket-propelled grenades.