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Pirates may just want fuel from hijacked oil tanker

Five Spaniards among crew being held by pirates off the coast of Togo

Five Spaniards are among the 23 crew members on board an oil tanker that was hijacked by pirates in the Gulf of Guinea on Wednesday.

The Foreign Ministry and the ship's owner, Navigation Consultants, confirmed that the 46,000-ton Cypriot-flagged tanker, Mattheos I, was boarded by pirates some 50 miles from the coast of Togo. Both the ministry and the company say the crew is "fine" as well as "safe and secure."

The Togolese media reports that the crew is being held by a group of about five or six armed men who have not made any demands. Generally, unlike the Somalis, pirates who operate in this area tend to hijack the ship to steal the fuel load and then in four or five days, a spokesman for the International Maritime Office's (IMO) anti-piracy center told EL PAÍS.

"It is a new phenomenon. Last year, there were no incidents and this year we already have 19," said the spokesman. "All of the ships had fuel, which is what interests the pirates. Once the fuel is transferred to their boats, they release their hostages."

Of the five Spaniards, one is a Peruvian national who has Spanish citizenship.

The chief of the prime minister's office, Ramón Jáuregui, said that the government was working to seek the crew's release "soon." The Spanish Embassy in Accra, Ghana (there isn't one in Togo) is conducting the negotiations with the Togolese authorities to solve the kidnapping, he said.

Among the Spanish sailors are four officers and a trainee. One of them, the first mate, was identified as called Manuel Bilbao Baudot and is from Ferrol but lives in Tenerife. Ana Palencia, Bilbao's wife, said she was upset that nobody was relaying information about the situation from the start. "Yesterday [Wednesday] was pretty bad with many calls and a lot of nervousness, but then we learned how slowly the kidnapping occurred and are now a bit more relaxed. But the worst is not knowing anything," Palencia told EL PAÍS.

She explained that she and her husband had discussed the risks of navigating through this area. "We've been reading that there are many kidnappings in this place and what they care about is the cargo."

The ship was built in 2004 and is a Spanish vessel, despite sailing under the Cypriot flag