Somali pirates said on Sunday they hijacked a Pakistani-owned ship even as France and the Seychelles nabbed 14 more suspects in the intensifying international hunt for high-seas bandits.
The latest hijacking brings the pirates' haul since the start of the year to more than 30 vessels, at least 18 of which are still being held, together with around 300 seamen, close to a third of them Filipinos.
The MV Al-Misan was captured on Friday around 100 kilometres (60 miles) off the capital Mogadishu, said Ahmed Abdi, a pirate commander in the coastal village of Harardhere.
According to elders and traders in the region, it was transporting vehicles and commodities such as sugar and cooking oil for Somali traders and had been sailing from the United Arab Emirates.
"One of the two ships we hijacked ... is confirmed to have been chartered by Somali traders and there are already talks to release it. I think it will happen today," Ahmed Abdi told AFP by phone.
One Somali trader with a stake in the hijacked ship's cargo said he was hopeful the vessel would be released soon.
"There are efforts to free the ship and its crew, Somali traders and elders are already negotiating with the pirates and we are hopeful that they will soon release it," Abdullahi Moalim Barre told AFP.
The Pakistani authorities said no ship was registered under the name MV Al-Misan.
On Saturday, pirates in Haradhere said they had captured two ships.
One of them was confirmed as the MV Ariana, a bulk carrier transporting 35,000 tonnes of soya beans, with owners in Britain and Greece and a crew of 24 Ukrainians.
Confusion surrounded the identity of the second ship, however, with unconfirmed reports from pirate sources that it was a Ukrainian ship carrying UN vehicles, among other things.
The pirates are enjoying the last few days of favourable weather conditions, in between monsoon seasons that make approaching and boarding large ships with a high freeboard more difficult.
The world's naval powers are dispatching an ever-growing fleet of warships in response to a scourge which is threatening to disrupt one of the world's busiest maritime trade routes.
The French frigate Nivose captured 11 more pirates early Sunday near the Seychelles waters, after two small skiffs attacked it, apparently thinking the warship was a merchant vessel.
The Nivose moved into the sun to keep its cover and when the assailants were close enough, unleashed commandos on outboards and a helicopter to interdict the pirates.
Two assault rifles and an RPG were found on the skiffs.
The French navy has captured dozens of suspected pirates in recent weeks. Some were released for lack of evidence, the others transferred either to Somalia's breakaway region of Puntland or Kenya.
The Seychelles also announced Sunday that it had apprehended three suspected Somali pirates in its vast exclusive economic zone, which covers 1.3 million square kilometres in the Indian Ocean.
"The three men identified themselves as Somali. They were travelling in a six-metre skiff with several barrels of fuel and water onboard," a statement from the presidency said.
The Seychelles coast guard ship PS Andromache was alerted to the presence of suspected pirates in its waters by a warship from the European Union naval mission Atalanta on April 30 and caught the three on Saturday.
The operation brings to 12 the number of suspected pirates currently held by the Seychelles authorities following the capture a week earlier of nine Somalis believed to be behind an attack on an Italian cruise ship.
With foreign navies focusing their efforts on the Gulf of Aden, a key choking point for huge maritime traffic and a large proportion of the world's oil supplies, pirates have hunted their prey further out into the Indian Ocean.
Somalia's marauding sea-jackers have struck several hundred nautical miles from the East African coast and lately carried out several attacks in the Seychelles' waters.
The archipelago, whose economy relies heavily on tourism and luxury cruises, has voiced great concern at the trend.