Image: Cruise ship Msc Melody
Roberto Munao  /  AP
Italian cruise ship Msc Melody enters the port of Messina May 15, 2008. The commander of the ship says his crew successfully fended off an attack by pirates off Somalia, returning fire when the pirates attacked.
updated 4/26/2009 12:43:20 PM ET 2009-04-26T16:43:20

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 ship's commander told Italian state radio on Sunday that six men in a small white speed boat approached the Msc Melody and opened fire "like crazy" on Saturday night, but retreated after the Israeli security officers aboard the cruise ship returned fire.

"It felt like we were in war," Cmdr. Ciro Pinto said.

No passengers or crew hurt
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.

The attack occurred about 200 miles (325 kilometers) 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, said that last fall after the attack on a Saudi tanker more than 400 nautical miles off the coast of Somalia there had been "a definite shift in (the pirates) tactical capabilities."

"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."

Separately on Sunday morning, the Turkish cruiser Ariva 3, with two British and four Japanese crew aboard, survived a pirate attack near the Yemeni island of Jabal Zuqar, 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.

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.

But Saturday's exchange of fire between the Melody and pirates was one of the first reported between pirates and a nonmilitary ship. 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.

Not the first attack on a cruise liner
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.

The Melody was on a 22-day cruise from Durban, South Africa, to Genoa, Italy, when the pirates fired "like crazy" with automatic weapons late Saturday, slightly damaging the liner, Pinto said. The pirates tried to put a ladder on board, but were unable to climb aboard, he said.

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.

"When they saw our fire ... they left us and went away. They followed us for a bit but then stopped," he told Sky TG24.

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.

Spanish escort on its way
The Spanish warship SPS Marques de Ensenada was meeting up with the Melody 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, 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.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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