"In the future, the Russian navy will send its ships on a regular basis to zones where there is a danger from maritime piracy," Dygalo told Russia's Vesti-24 television station.

"This is being done to defend the lives of Russian citizens, should such a danger appear, and to ensure the safety of shipping."

The Faina's whereabouts were unknown on Friday, but Somali pirates often take ships to Eyl, a harbour in the lawless country's northern breakaway region of Puntland.

Communication lost

Ukraine's foreign ministry said the Ukrainian-based Tomax Team company lost contact with one of its freighters when the ship's captain said pirates were approaching the ship.

Pirates travel in speedboats and are armed with automatic weapons [AFP]

"The captain reported that three cutter boats with armed people approached the Faina, and then communication was cut off," a statement said, quoting information given by Tomax Team.

"The ship was transporting military hardware, including some 30 T-72 tanks and spare parts for armoured vehicles," Russia's Interfax news agency said.

The Soviet-era T-72 was a frontline tank in Warsaw Pact states and is still in service in more than 30 countries.

Dozens of ships, mainly merchant vessels, have been seized by gangs off Somalia's 3,700km coastline in recent years, despite the presence of Western navies deployed in the region to fight terrorism.

Pirates travel in speedboats and are armed with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades. They sometimes hold ships for weeks until they are released for large ransoms paid by governments or owners.

In recent months, a multinational taskforce based in Djibouti has been patrolling parts of the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea.

French naval commandos have taken action against pirates who seized two sailing vessels with French citizens aboard and arrested a dozen suspects.

They were brought to France and are awaiting trial on charges of hijacking, hostage-taking and armed robbery, which carry life sentences.

Some pirates have justified their actions by claiming that, in the absence of a functional central authority in Somalia, they were battling illegal fishing and toxic waste dumping by foreign countries.

Insecurity has plagued Somalia since the 1991 removal of President Mohamed Siad Barre set off a deadly power struggle that has defied more than a dozen peace initiatives.