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SEOUL (AFP) – A South Korean fishing boat with 43 people on board has been seized by Somali pirates off the Kenyan coast, the foreign ministry said Sunday, the latest vessel to be captured by the bandits.

The 241-ton crab fishing vessel, which was carrying two South Koreans, two Chinese and 39 Kenyans, was hijacked on October 9 in the Indian Ocean off the Kenyan island of Lamu, the ministry said in a statement.

It is the latest of dozens of vessels to have been captured by pirates off the Horn of Africa in recent years, threatening international shipping and trade.

"We are investigating the exact circumstances surrounding the incident by setting up an emergency team at our embassy in Kenya," the ministry said, without revealing the whereabouts of the vessel or crew.

YTN news channel reported that the fishing boat, Keummi 305, and its crew had been taken to a pirate stronghold in northern Somalia, citing South Korean sources in Kenya.

Yonhap news agency reported that the 54-year-old captain, one of the South Koreans aboard, was also the head of the shipping company that owns the vessel.

The company, Keummi Fishers, has been on the verge of collapse due to financial troubles, which will further complicate ransom negotiations, it said.

"The company has been sitting on piles of debt... we are clueless on how to resolve this," said a company official quoted by Yonhap.

The official said the pirates have not yet contacted the firm.

Piracy has surged in recent years off Somalia, a lawless, war-torn country that sits astride one of the world's most important shipping routes, leading to the Suez Canal.

Dozens of ships have been hijacked and held for ransom, notably the Sirius Star, a Saudi-owned supertanker that is more than 1,000 feet long.

The pirates are estimated to have made 60 million dollars in ransoms last year.

Foreign naval powers, including a joint European Union force and the US Navy's Fifth Fleet, have mounted patrols off the Horn of Africa in a multinational effort to try to secure the area, with some success.

South Korea is one of the countries involved in the effort.

But the pirates, often operating in small, fast boats from a larger "mother ship", have been able to seize boats hundreds of miles offshore, as far east as the Maldives and as far south as Mozambique.

In April a South Korean oil tanker with 24 crew on board was hijacked by pirates off Somalia and is still being held.

The 300,000-ton ship, the Samho Dream, was on its way from Iraq to the US state of Louisiana with a crew of five South Koreans and 19 Filipinos.

Since 2006 at least two other South Korean vessels have been seized and released after ransoms were paid.

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