ROME — An Italian cruise ship with 1,500 people on board fended off a pirate attack far off Somalia when its private security forces exchanged fire with the bandits and drove them away.
The ship's commander told Italian state radio Sunday that six men in a small white speedboat approached the MSC Melody and opened fire "like crazy" Saturday night, but retreated after the Israeli security officers aboard the cruise ship returned fire with pistols.
"It felt like we were in war," the ship's captain, Cmdr. Ciro Pinto, said, adding that the pirates followed the ship for a bit before heading off.
None of the 1,000 passengers and 500 crew members were hurt, Melody owner MSC Cruises said in a statement issued by its German branch.
The attack occurred about 200 miles north of the Seychelles and about 500 miles east of Somalia, according to the anti-piracy flotilla headquarters of the Maritime Security Center Horn of Africa.
U.S. Navy Lt. Nathan Christensen, a spokesman for the 5th Fleet, said that after an attack last fall on a Saudi tanker more than 400 nautical miles off 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 farther and farther off the Somali coast."
International military forces have battled pirates, with U.S. Navy snipers killing three men who were holding an American merchant marine captain hostage.
But Saturday's exchange of fire was one of the first reported between pirates and a nonmilitary ship. Civilian 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. Late last year, 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 outran the pirates. In early April a yacht that had just dropped off its tourist passengers was hijacked by Somali pirates near the Seychelles.
The Melody is on a 22-day cruise from Durban, South Africa, to Genoa, Italy.