Officials and residents in Somalia's Puntland region say they saw a large ship off the country's coast explode and gradually begin to sink Monday.
Witnesses in the coastal town of Muranyo describe the ship as looking like a warship, although it was not possible to immediately identify the vessel. They say two other ships in the area came to the aid of the sinking ship and rescued its crew.
The region is frequently patrolled by the European Union Naval Force Somalia to disrupt piracy and protect vulnerable shipping, including World Food Program vessels.
"The ship sank around sunset on Monday. Then, two warships came. Locals saw them evacuating the crew. No one has contacted us and we had no ability to extend a rescue at nighttime," said Ali Shire Osman, the chairman of the northern Somali port town of Alula.
One witness described the scene to VOA's Somali service: "A huge explosion happened, which sent plumes of smoke mixed with waves of water into the air. It was a deafening blast and then the ship started to gradually sink," said Mohamed Ahmed. "Then two white warships came to the scene and are still there."
Local fishermen said they returned to shore after the explosion, fearing the impact of the blast. "We are worried that what has happened might affect us and our fishing environment," said Abdirahamn Omar, a fisherman in the town.
The town near where the incident happened is 44 kilometers east of Alula, which has been one of the pirate hubs in Somalia.
In April, observers warned that piracy could be making a comeback along the coast of Somalia, after gunmen hijacked two ships in 48 hours.
At the peak of the piracy crisis in the early 2010s, Somali pirate gangs were responsible for hundreds of attacks on commercial ships traveling in the Gulf of Aden, the western Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea.
According to annual reports compiled by the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), Somali pirates hijacked 49 ships in 2010 and took more than 1,000 crew members hostage. The pirates and their backers sometimes split windfalls of more than $5 million for the release of a ship and its crew.
But Somali piracy virtually disappeared just three years later, after international navies began regular patrols of shipping lanes and ships took new security measures, in some cases carrying armed guards on board.