Armed Italian cruise ship fends off Somalian pirates
Last Updated: Monday, April 27, 2009
The Associated Press
An Italian cruise ship came under attack by Somalian pirates on Saturday, but its security forces were able to prevent them from clambering aboard, the company's director said Sunday.
A small white skiff approached the Melody cruise ship after dinnertime as it sailed north of the Seychelles, off Africa's east coast. The pirates fired wildly toward the 1,500 passengers and crew on board, but the MSC Cruises ocean liner's private Israeli security forces fired back.
Adding a new twist to the increasing scourge of Somalian pirate hijackings, the security guards aboard also sprayed water hoses at the pirates to prevent them from clambering aboard, company director Domenico Pellegrino said.
"It was an emergency operation," Pellegrino said. "They didn't expect such a quick response. They were surprised."
Passengers were ordered to return to their cabins and the lights on deck were switched off. The massive vessel then sailed on in darkness, eventually escorted by a Spanish warship to make sure it made it to its next port.
"It felt like we were in war," the ship's Italian commander, Ciro Pinto, told Italian state radio.
None of the 1,000 passengers were hurt and by Sunday afternoon they were back out on deck sunning themselves, Pellegrino said.
But analysts said the unprecedented use of weapons by the ship's security force could make things worse in the pirate-infested waters off the Horn of Africa, where more than 100 ships were attacked last year by pirates based in Somalia. In nearly all the successful hijackings, the crews were unharmed and were let go after a ransom was paid.
"There is a consensus in the shipping industry that, in the vast majority of cases, having an armed guard is not a good idea. The No. 1 reason is that it could cause an escalation of violence and pirates that have so far been trying to scare ships could now start to kill people," said Roger Middleton, an expert on Somalian piracy at London-based think tank Chatham House.
Other experts disagree, saying piracy off the coast of modern-day Somalia is unique in that the pirates are most interested in human cargo.
"Their business model, if you will, has been to not cross a line which would bring the whole weight of the world upon them. They want to seize hostages and ransom those hostages. So the likelihood that they would escalate violence is unlikely," said Africa expert Peter Pham, director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University in Virginia.
He argued that arming ships is not a sustainable solution, given that an estimated 20,000 vessels pass through the Gulf of Aden each year.
"For the Melody, you're talking about 1,000 passengers and 500 crew members, so maybe for 1,500 people paying to have security on board makes both economical and tactical sense — but when you're dealing with ordinary cargo ships it's very different," he said.
Pellegrino said MSC Cruises has Israeli private security forces on all their ships because they are the best. He said the pistols on board were at the discretion of the commander and the security forces.
The attack occurred near the Seychelles and about 800 kilometres east of Somalia, according to the anti-piracy flotilla headquarters of the European Union's Maritime Security Centre – Horn of Africa. The Melody was travelling up Africa's east coast, from Durban, South Africa, to Genoa, Italy.
Pinto said the pirates fired "like crazy" with automatic weapons, slightly damaging the liner, when they approached in a small, white, Zodiac-like boat.
"After about four or five minutes, they tried to put a ladder up," Pinto told the TV station Sky TG24.
"They were starting to climb up but we reacted, we started to fire ourselves. When they saw our fire, and also the water from the water hoses that we started to spray toward the Zodiac, they left and went away.... They followed us for a bit, about 20 minutes," he said.
Other clashes at sea
In a separate incident Sunday, Yemen's Interior Ministry said the Yemeni coast guard clashed with pirates and killed two of them when they tried to hijack a Yemeni tanker in the Gulf of Aden. And the Turkish cruiser Ariva 3, with two British and four Japanese crew members aboard, survived a pirate attack near the Yemeni island of Jabal Zuqar, said Ali el-Awlaqi, head of the Yemeni El-laqi Marine Co.
Earlier this month, the U.S. navy shot and killed three pirates and took a fourth into custody after a five-day standoff in the waters off Somalia, where they had hijacked the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama.
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.
It was not the first attack on a cruise liner, however. In November, pirates opened fire on a U.S.-operated ship, the M/S Nautica, which was taking 650 passengers and 400 crew members on a month-long luxury cruise from Rome to Singapore. The liner was able to outrun the pirates. And in early April a tourist yacht was hijacked by Somali pirates near the Seychelles just after having dropped off its cargo of tourists.