By Jonathan Saul

A commercial vessel hijacked by unknown assailants remains off the coast of Somalia raising fears of further instability for global shipping as attacks escalate in the Red Sea, maritime security sources said on Monday.

A Spanish navy ship was dispatched at full speed on Friday towards the Maltese-flagged Ruen vessel, which sources said had been hijacked.

British maritime security company Ambrey said the vessel had reached nine miles offshore from Bander Murcaayo in Puntland, Somalia on Dec. 17.

“This was assessed likely to be the first hijacking of a merchant vessel by Somali pirates since the ARIS 13 in 2017. Ambrey assessed the event was likely partly a consequence of political instability in Puntland,” Ambrey said.

“There is assessed to be a possible criminal and opportunist risk.”

The European Union’s naval force EUNAVFOR told Reuters on Monday that the incident was still ongoing and it was in “close collaboration with the Somali local authorities”, adding that it was “coordinating efforts for a comprehensive follow-up and sharing of information”.

The Ruen last reported its position off the coast of Somalia on Monday at 1810 GMT, according to data from ship tracking and maritime analytics provider MarineTraffic.

The vessel’s Bulgaria-based manager Navigation Maritime Bulgare did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

There are industry fears that there could be a spillover in attacks by other groups amid growing attacks by Iran-backed Houthis from Yemen on commercial shipping in the Red Sea in support of Palestinian Islamist group Hamas in their war against Israel in Gaza, shipping sources said.

“When there is instability in Puntland, obviously that gives more room for potential pirates or gangs to operate. And Puntland now has seen a period of instability because of an election dispute,” said Nicolas Delaunay, east and southern Africa project director with the independent International Crisis Group.

“Additionally, the Puntland Maritime Police Force, which was initially trained as an anti-piracy unit, over the years became more of a generic security provider less focused on piracy.”

Reporting by Jonathan Saul; Additional reporting by Duncan Miriri in Nairobi; Editing by Andrea Ricci