ROME – An Italian cruise ship with 1,500 people on board fended off a pirate attack far off the coast of Somalia when its Israeli private security forces exchanged fire with the bandits and drove them away, the commander said Sunday.
Cmdr. Ciro Pinto told Italian state radio that six men in a small white speed boat approached the Msc Melody and opened fire Saturday night, but retreated after the Israeli security officers aboard the cruise ship returned fire.
"It felt like we were in war," Pinto said.
None of the roughly 1,000 passengers and 500 crew members were hurt, Melody owner Msc Cruises said in a statement issued by its German branch.
Domenico Pellegrino, head of the Italian cruise line, said Msc Cruises hired the Israelis because they were the best trained security agents, the ANSA news agency reported.
Separately, the Turkish cruiser Ariva 3, with two British and four Japanese crew aboard, survived a pirate attack near the Yemeni island of Jabal Zuqar early Sunday, said Ali el-Awlaqi, head of the Yemeni El-Awlaqi Marine company said.
"Pirates opened fire at the cruise ship for 15 minutes then stopped for no reason," he said, adding that the cruiser was heading to Aden, Yemen, to fix a broken engine.
Civilian shipping and passenger ships have generally avoided arming crewmen or hiring armed security for reasons of safety, liability and compliance with the rules of the different countries where they dock.
Saturday's exchange of fire between pirates and the Melody was one of the first reported between pirates and a nonmilitary ship. International military forces have battled pirates, with U.S. Navy snipers killing three holding an American captain hostage in one of the highest-profile incidents.
It was not the first attack on a cruise liner, however. In December, pirates opened fire on a U.S.-operated ship carrying hundreds of tourists on a monthlong luxury cruise from Rome to Singapore, but the cruise liner was able to outrun the pirates. In early April a tourist yacht was hijacked by Somali pirates near the Seychelles just after having dropped off its cargo of tourists.
Saturday's attack occurred about 200 miles north of the Seychelles, and about 500 miles (800 kilometers) east of Somalia, according to the anti-piracy flotilla headquarters of the Maritime Security Center Horn of Africa.
Lt. Nathan Christensen, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy 5th Fleet, noted that the distance from the Somalia coast was a sign of the pirates' increasing skill.
"It's not unheard of to have attacks off the coast of the Seychelles, we've even had some in the past month," he said. "But at the same time, it is a sign that they are moving further and further off the Somali coast," demonstrating a "definite shift in their tactical capabilities."
Pinto said the pirates fired with automatic weapons, slightly damaging the liner, and tried to put a ladder on board. But he said they were unable to climb aboard.
The commander said his security forces opened fire with pistols, and the ANSA news agency said the pistols had been kept in a safe under the joint control of the commander and security chief.
Cruise line security work is a popular job for young Israelis who have recently been discharged from mandatory army service, as it is a good chance to save money and travel.
The Spanish warship SPS Marques de Ensenada was meeting up with the liner to escort her through the pirate-infested northern Gulf of Aden, the Maritime Security Center said.
The cruise ship was headed as scheduled to the Jordanian port of Aqaba. The Melody was on a 22-day cruise from Durban, South Africa, to Genoa, Italy, returning to the Mediterranean for spring and summer season cruises.
Meanwhile, Somali pirates on Sunday demanded a $5 million ransom for the release of two Egyptian fishing boats hijacked earlier this month, and the safe return of their crew, Egyptian Foreign Ministry official Ahmed Rizq said in Cairo.
"Tribal sheiks are trying to mediate to convince the hijackers to release the boats and the sailors, but it's clear to everybody that we are dealing with piracy that has no other purpose but money," he said, adding that the negotiations were between the hijackers and the boats' owners.
Pirates have attacked more than 100 ships off the Somali coast over the last year, reaping an estimated $1 million in ransom for each successful hijacking, according to analysts and country experts.
Another Italian-owned vessel remains in the hands of pirates. The Italian-flagged tugboat Buccaneer was seized off Somalia on April 11 with 16 crew members aboard.
On Saturday, the Foreign Ministry dispatched a special envoy, Margherita Boniver, to Somalia to try to win the release of the tug and crew. In a statement, the ministry also denied reports by relatives of the crew that an ultimatum had been issued by the pirates.