Coastguards in northern Somalia exchanged gunfire today with armed men aboard a boat heading towards a hijacked oil tanker where pirates are holding eight hostages, an official said. Armed attackers seized the Aris 13 tanker on Monday as it made its way from Djibouti to Mogadishu, the first hijacking of a large merchant vessel by Somali pirates since 2012. The tanker was forced to change course and head toward the coastline of the semi-autonomous Puntland region, on the northeastern tip of Somalia. "There was a brief exchange of gunfire in the coastal area where the boat is being held," said Abdirahman Mohamud Hassan, the director general of the Puntland maritime force. "Our forces were doing a normal routine patrolling around the area when they came under gunfire from these gunmen who were onboard a small skiff and they returned fire." Local fisherman Abdulahi Yahya from the town of Habo where the hijacked ship is docked, said the men were "heading towards the hijacked ship when they were intercepted by the coastguards." John Steed, a former British army officer who heads the Horn of Africa section of the Oceans Beyond Piracy NGO, told AFP the men were believed to be members of the local community delivering food to the hijacked vessel. He said an unknown number of people had been injured in the fierce firefight. Hassan said: "The gunmen aboard the hijacked ship contacted our commanders and asked for the fire to be ceased." He said efforts were under way to free the ship and a regional governor, whose name was not given, had been appointed to lead negotiations with the pirates.
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