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BEIJING (Reuters) - China has warned its ships to stay away from waters off Somalia where pirates seized a Chinese coal ship on Monday, as Beijing sought to recover the vessel and crew.
Somali pirates took control of the De Xin Hai and its crew of 25 Chinese nationals about 700 nautical miles east of the failed Horn of Africa state, where piracy has become a bane to the region's busy sea lanes.
China's Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday that the government had set in motion efforts to rescue the captured ship, but one of the pirates told Reuters that the crew could be killed if authorities try such an operation.
A negotiated solution appears possible.
For now, however, China's Ministry of Transport has warned the country's ships to avoid the area, the ministry's website (www.moc.gov.cn) reported.
"The maritime authorities have issued a notice warning all vessels belonging to our country to avoid the area as far as possible, and telling ships in the vicinity to raise their vigilance and strengthen protection," it said.
The report did not specify what area Chinese ships have been told to avoid.
Chinese vessels had already been advised to stay 600 nautical miles off the East Coast of Africa, but the De Xin Hai was outside that zone when it was captured. It was unclear whether China would expand the advised perimeter, which would add to the time and cost of voyages along that route.
Indian coal traders feared Monday's incident, the first reported hijacking of a coal vessel by Somali pirates, could mean the gunmen would start targeting other coal ships because these dry bulk vessels are smaller and have relatively small crews.
That could disrupt an expected increase in the volume of South African coal heading to India over the coming months, following a surge in Indian demand during the past two years.
The European Union's counter-piracy force said an EU maritime patrol aircraft had located the vessel on Monday.
Despite a major deployment this year by foreign navies in the strategic shipping lanes linking Europe to Asia through the Suez Canal, pirate gangs have continued to terrorise the waters off Somalia, making tens of millions of dollars in ransoms.
China sent three warships to Somali waters late last year after a ship carrying oil to China was attacked by pirates. Those Chinese warships, like those of other navies, mostly patrol the narrow Gulf of Aden, not the much larger Indian Ocean.
But Somali pirates are shifting their focus towards the Indian Ocean as foreign naval patrols become more effective in targeting the gangs, Per Gullestrup, president and chief executive of Clipper Projects, a unit of Danish ship-owning group Clipper, told Reuters on Tuesday.
(Reporting by Chris Buckley; Editing by Ken Wills)