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MID: Cruise ship passengers surprised by pirate attack

04 Dec 2008 12:13 AM

MUSCAT, Dec 3 Agencies/AAP - Passengers aboard a luxury cruise liner have given graphic accounts of a brazen attack by speed boat pirates in the Gulf of Aden.

The Oceania Nautica with 684 passengers aboard, including 50 Australians and some New Zealanders, came under fire on Sunday in notoriously dangerous waters between Yemen and Somalia.

The pirates were aboard two small boats fitted with outboard motors.

"We didn't think they would be cheeky enough to attack a cruise ship," Wendy Armitage, of Wellington, New Zealand, told The Associated Press shortly after disembarking at a port stop in the Omani capital of Muscat on Wednesday.

"It was very minor really," she said of the attack that lasted about five minutes.

"But it was a surprise that they attacked us, and they did fire shots."

The captain ordered passengers inside and accelerated the cruise liner and outran the the six-to nine-metre speedboats.

"I couldn't see them shooting, but I heard them hitting the ship, 'pop, pop, pop,"' said Clyde Thornberg from Oregon, in the US.

"It wasn't really scary because the captain announced for the safety of everybody to get inside and get down.

"And by that time he was pouring on the coals to the ship and was outrunning them."

The cruise ship company, Oceania Cruises, said Captain Jurica Brajcic and his officers took evasive action after two small skiffs were sighted and deemed potentially hostile.

"The skiffs, approaching from a range of approximately 1000 metres attempted to intercept the vessel's course," the company said in a statement.

"Nautica was immediately brought to flank speed and was able to outrun the two skiffs.

"One of the skiffs did manage to close the range to approximately 300 yards and fired eight rifle shots in the direction of the vessel before trailing off."

This statement differed from an earlier account by the Danish navy, which said an international taskforce had foiled the hijack attempt.

On Monday, Agence France-Presse reported that a spokesman for the Danish navy, the current lead nation in the NATO taskforce, confirmed the operation had stopped a group of pirates from boarding the civilian vessel.

"The (Danish) navy's tactical command on Sunday led a military operation, dispatching a vessel from the coalition to the aid of a civilian ship threatened by pirates, thereby preventing an act of piracy," Danish navy spokesman Jesper Lynge told AFP.

Lynge said it was up to the countries involved to give details of the cruise ship involved.

But according to Danish TV2 News, six to eight armed pirates on two speed boats were observed speeding toward the Nautica, which had set sail from Florida.

A French navy warship, alerted by the Danish Navy, scrambled a helicopter to the scene, which sent the pirates fleeing, TV2 News said.

No one aboard Nautica was harmed and no damage was sustained, Oceania Cruises said in the statement.

Sunday's assault was not the first time a cruise liner has been attacked.

In 2005, pirates opened fire on the Seabourn Spirit about 160 kilometres 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.

Several passengers on the Nautica said the ship's crew used a similar device to ward off Sunday's attack.

The passengers had been briefed before the cruise got under way about potential dangers and on the acoustic device's importance to the vessel's defence.

"We had been reassured that they had these ghetto blasters that would go through them," said Lynne Pincini, of Australia.

"Also, they said we could outrun anything."

International warships patrol the area and have set up a security corridor in the region under a US-led initiative, but attacks on shipping have not abated.

In about 100 attacks on ships off the Somali coast this year, 40 vessels have been hijacked.

Thirteen vessels remain in the hands of pirates along with more than 250 crew members, including a Saudi supertanker filled with $US100 million worth of crude and a Ukrainian ship loaded with 33 battle tanks.