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 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 hired the Israelis because they were the best trained security agents, the ANSA news agency reported.
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 was one of the first reported between pirates and a nonmilitary ship. International military forces have battled pirates, with US navy snipers killing three holding an American captain hostage in one of the highest-profile incidents.
Saturday's 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.
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.
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.