The waters off Somalia are teeming with pirates who have hijacked dozens of ships for multimillion-dollar ransoms in the past two years. An international naval force now patrols the Gulf of Aden, one of the world's busiest shipping lanes.
Choong said the U.K.-flagged tanker, St James Park, was the first merchant vessel to have been hijacked in the Gulf of Aden in nearly six months.
He said the ship issued a distress message Monday, seeking help after it was attacked.
The distress call was picked up by the Greek rescue and coordination center in Piraeus, which in turn relayed the message to the International Maritime Bureau and other agencies, he said.
The maritime bureau could not establish communication with the vessel but was informed by the ship's owner early Tuesday that the tanker has been hijacked, Choong said.
The spokesman for the European Union's anti-piracy force, Cmdr. John Harbour, said the St James Park was seized while in the Internationally Recognized Transit Corridor in the Gulf of Aden that is patrolled by the international naval coalition.
The St James Park set sail from Tarragona, Spain, and was headed for Tha Phut, Thailand, he said. The tanker has 26 crew members from the Philippines, Russia, Georgia, Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Poland, India and Turkey, Harbour said.
The ship was last reported to be heading toward the northern coast of Somalia, and the E.U. Naval Force was monitoring the situation, he added.
Choong said pirates last hijacked a Yemeni fishing boat in the Gulf of Aden on Dec. 18, but the St James Park was the first merchant vessel to have been taken in the busy waterway since July 8.
He said three hours after the St James Park was hijacked that a Panamanian-flagged carrier with 19 crew members was also seized by pirates off the southern coast of Somalia on Monday. The ship is managed in Greece, he said.
The International Maritime Bureau is still waiting for the official reports from both ship owners and couldn't give further details, Choong said.
In another development, pirates released the Singapore-flagged container ship Kota Wajar on Monday, the E.U. Naval Force said. The vessel was hijacked in mid-October in the Indian Ocean north of the Seychelles islands with a crew of 21 on board.
Choong said the latest incidents brought the number of attacks in the Gulf of Aden and off Somalia to 214 this year, with 47 vessels hijacked and 12 still in the hands of pirates with 263 crew, he added.
Somalia has not had an effective central government since 1991 as regional warlords vie for power, and impoverished young men have increasingly taken to piracy in recent years in hopes of a big ransom payoff.
Associated Press reporter writer Malkhadir M. Muhumed in Nairobi, Kenya, contributed to this report.