Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Pirates fire on US cruise ship in hijack attempt

NAIROBI, Kenya – Pirates chased and shot at a U.S. cruise liner with more than 1,000 people on board but failed to hijack the vessel as it sailed along a corridor patrolled by international warships, a maritime official said Tuesday.

The liner, carrying 656 international passengers and 399 crew members, was sailing through the pirate-infested Gulf of Aden on Sunday when it encountered six bandits in two speedboats, said Noel Choong who heads the International Maritime Bureau's piracy reporting center in Malaysia.

The pirates fired at the passenger liner but the larger boat was faster than the pirates' vessels, Choong said.

"It is very fortunate that the liner managed to escape," he said, urging all ships to remain vigilant in the area.

The U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, based in Bahrain, said it was aware of the failed hijacking but did not have further details.

Ship owner Oceania Cruises Inc. identified the vessel as the M/S Nautica.

In a statement on its Web site, the company said pirates fired eight rifle shots at the liner, but that the ship's captain increased speed and managed to outrun the skiffs.

All passengers and crew are safe and there was no damage to the vessel, it said.

The Nautica was on a 32-day cruise from Rome to Singapore, with stops at ports in Italy, Egypt, Oman, Dubai, India, Malaysia and Thailand, the Web site said. Based on that schedule, the liner was headed from Egypt to Oman when it was attacked.

The liner arrived in the southern Oman port city of Salalah on Monday morning, and the passengers toured the city before leaving for the capital, Muscat, Monday evening, an official of the Oman Tourism Ministry said Tuesday. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

The head of a shipping agency branch in Salalah had contact with the liner there.
"They talked about pirates opening fire at their ship off the Somalian shores," Khalil Shaker told The Associated Press by telephone. He said he had no details of the attack.

It is not the first time a cruise liner has been attacked. In 2005, pirates opened fire on the Seabourn Spirit about 100 miles (160 kilometers) off the Somali coast. The faster cruise ship managed to escape, and used a long-range acoustic device — which blasts a painful wave of sound — to distract the pirates.

International warships patrol the area and have created a security corridor in the region under a U.S.-led initiative, but the attacks have not abated.

In about 100 attacks on ships off the Somali coast this year, 40 vessels have been hijacked, Choong said. Fourteen remain in the hands of pirates along with more than 250 crew members.

In two if the most daring attacks, pirates seized a Ukrainian freighter loaded with 33 battle tanks in September, and on Nov. 15, a Saudi oil tanker carrying $100 million worth of crude oil.

Ukraine's Foreign Ministry spokesman Vasyl Kyrylych said Monday that negotiations with Somali pirates holding the cargo ship MV Faina are nearly completed, the Interfax news agency reported.

A spokesman for the Faina's owner said Sunday that the Somali pirates had agreed on a ransom for the ship and it could be released within days.

Somalia has not had a functioning government since 1991, and pirates have taken advantage of the country's lawlessness to launch attacks on foreign shipping from the Somali coast. Around 100 ships have been attacked so far this year.

Somali prime minister Nur Hassan Hussein said Tuesday that his country has been torn apart by 18 years of civil war and cannot stop piracy alone.

"This needs a tremendous effort," Hussein told The Associated Press. He has appealed for international troops, as his government's Ethiopian allies have said they would pull out their forces by the end of the year.

Ethiopia, the region's military powerhouse, has been integral in boosting the government. But Islamic insurgents have now seized control of all of southern Somalia except for the capital and the parliamentary seat of Baidoa.


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