(Adds Kenya-U.S. agreement)
By Wangui Kanina
NAIROBI, Jan 29 (Reuters) - Somali pirates hijacked a German-owned tanker carrying liquefied petroleum gas on Thursday, the first ship seized in the Gulf of Aden in nearly four weeks.
A decline in the rate of successful attacks since foreign navies rushed to the busy sea lane has raised optimism among shippers that the menace was being curbed, but pirates have been seeking ways to evade the warships.
The Longchamp was hijacked with a crew of 12 Filipinos and one Indonesian as it was headed from Europe to the Far East, Andrew Mwangura, of the East African Seafarers Assistance Programme, told Reuters.
Hamburg-based ship operator Bernard Schulte Shipmanagement confirmed the hijacking. It said no demands had been made.
“The master was briefly allowed to communicate with us and it appears that all crew members are safe,” it said in a statement on its website.
Shipping information service Lloyd’s List put the Longchamp’s size at 4,316 deadweight tonnes — over 70 times smaller than the Saudi supertanker held in November and released on Jan. 9 after the world’s biggest ship hijacking.
Liquefied petroleum gas, a fuel, is highly flammable.
Somali gunmen have been causing havoc in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, hijacking dozens of ships last year.
The attacks have raised insurance costs, prompted some owners to go round South Africa instead of via the Suez Canal and triggered an unprecedented deployment by naval forces from the United States, European Union, China, India and others.
Shippers say that has decreased the frequency of successful hijackings — the previous one was on Jan. 3 — but a senior officer with the U.S. military command for Africa told Reuters this week the decline could have been due to the weather.
The Pentagon said on Thursday that Kenya had agreed to prosecute pirates captured by the U.S. Navy, removing a major obstacle to taking them prisoner. Kenya has already put some pirates captured by the British on trial.
The U.S. naval force in the region plans to increase its efforts to combat piracy.
On Thursday, nine countries in the region adopted a code of conduct on the repression of piracy. They agreed to set up piracy information centres in the coastal cities of Dar es Salaam, Sanaa in Yemen and the Kenyan port city of Mombasa.
“The Djibouti code of conduct is the first regional mechanism established for African and Arab nations,” said Koji Sekimizu, the director of the Maritime Safety Division at the International Maritime Organisation (IMO).
It was not immediately clear what was in the code.
Somalia’s government also said in a statement on Thursday it had appointed a new agency, the Somali Maritime Security, to combat piracy within its territorial waters. It gave no further details.
In the northern enclave of Puntland, the French navy handed over nine suspected pirates to the authorities on Thursday. (Additional reporting by Berlin Bureau, David Clarke and Abdiaziz Hassan in Djibouti and Abdiqani Hassan in Bossaso. Editing by Matthew Tostevin)