Coastguards in northern Somalia exchanged gunfire Thursday 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.
Mohamed Deeq, a member of the Puntland coastguard, told AFP earlier that if talks to free the vessel and eight Sri Lankan hostages failed, "the forces will possibly engage" the pirates.
- Illegal fishing fuels piracy -
The Aris 13 was about 18 kilometres off the Somali coast when it was attacked, according to Steed.
He said the vessel was not following the "best practices" put in place to avoid piracy, since it was taking a cost- and time-saving route too close to Somalia's coastline, was travelling too slowly and was without an armed escort.
Village elders of Alula said the pirates had not made clear demands, but claimed to be driven by anger over illegal fishing.
"These are fishermen who are infuriated with the illegal fishing off their coasts. They desperately need to show their grievances by seizing the boat," said Abdiwahab Ahmed, an elder in Alula.
In Sri Lanka, a spokesman for AJ Shipping Private Limited which represents the Greek owner of the Aris 13 met with family members of the hostages.
The spokesman Tyronne Fernando said the owner of the ship had spoken to its captain Nicholas Thangenthren who had assured him that all the hostages were unharmed.
"We are confident that the crew will be released very soon," Fernando told family members in the presence of reporters.
Somali pirates began staging waves of attacks in 2005, seriously disrupting a major international shipping route and costing the global economy billions of dollars.
At the peak of the piracy crisis in January 2011, 736 hostages and 32 boats were held.
Though anti-piracy measures ended attacks on commercial vessels, fishing boats have continued to face attacks.
Illegal fishing has long been used by Somali pirates as an excuse for attacks and Steed has in the past warned that the presence of foreign vessels emptying Somali waters could reverse the gains against piracy.