Pirates have hijacked a Malaysian ship carrying as many as 39 crewmembers off the coast of Somalia. As Derek Kilner reports from VOA's East Africa bureau in Nairobi, the ship is the fourth to be hijacked in the area in the past month.

The tanker was carrying palm oil from the Indonesian island of Sumatra to Rotterdam in the Netherlands. It was hijacked by pirates in the Gulf of Aden, between Somalia and Yemen, on Tuesday evening.

The Malaysian company that owns the ship said in a statement that 39 crew members were aboard, including 29 Malaysians and 10 Filipinos.

An official with the International Maritime Bureau in Kuala Lumpur said an international naval task force that has been authorized by the United Nations to combat piracy in the area, had dispatched a warship to pursue the hijacked vessel.

But Andrew Mwangura, of the East Africa Seafarers Assistance Program in Kenya, said piracy is not the top priority for naval operations in the area, and he doubted whether a naval vessel would be close enough to reach the Malaysian ship.

"Their main duty was to fight against terrorism and gun running, drug trafficking, that was there main duty when it was set up. You know this is a very large area and we don't have a quite big number of battle ships," Mwangura said.

Mwangura said authorities would wait until they had a better idea of the identity of the sailors and the hijackers before making contact with the crew.

"We are trying to avoid communication with the ship at the moment until the course is clear until we find out who are they, who are holding them and why are they holding them and where exactly they are. Because we don't want to put the lives of the seamen in danger," Mwangura said.

But he said that the ship was likely headed towards the coast of Puntland, a semi-autonomous region in northern Somalia, where the pirates would demand a ransom.

Puntland's information minister, Abdulrahman Banga, told VOA that his country lacks the resources to pursue such attackers, and urged western nations and the U.N. to step up assistance.

"We need financial support, economic support," Banga said. "We need to set up our military, especially the coast guard. We need swift boats. We have the manpower but we don't have financial capability to catch all these things."

Piracy has long been a problem in the Gulf of Aden, where one of the world's busiest shipping lanes, connecting the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea, passes by lawless Somalia, which has been without an effective central government
since 1991.

The frequency of attacks has been especially high in the past month. Since late July, Japanese, Nigerian, and Thai ships have all been hijacked by Somali pirates seeking ransoms