The luxury American cruise ship teeming with hundreds of tourists just might have been too much for the Somali pirates to resist. But the bandits, riding in two skiffs and firing rifle shots at the gleaming ship, were outrun in minutes when the captain of M/S Nautica gunned the engine and sped away in the Gulf of Aden, a spokesman for the company said Tuesday.
Still, the implications had the pirates hijacked the ship add a new dimension to the piracy scourge as NATO foreign ministers groped for solutions at a meeting in Brussels and the United Nations extended an international piracy-fighting mandate for another year.The potential for massive ransom payments from the families of hundreds of rich tourists on a pleasure cruise may encourage similar attempts, especially following the successful capture in recent weeks of a Ukrainian cargo ship laden with tanks and a Saudi oil tanker.
And the brazen attack also raises questions: What was a cruise ship doing in the pirate-infested waters of the Gulf of Aden? How many such targets are sailing these seas, and how can they be protected?
Even the pirates' motives were in question: they could simply have been testing the defenses of the massive ship, rather than making a real effort to hijack it. Sunday's attack on the M/S Nautica comes several weeks after a NATO mission served mainly to underscore the impotence of the world community: A handful of Western ships can do little to prevent attacks in a vast sea, and without the right to board hijacked vessels, they can only watch as the booty is towed to port.
"It is very fortunate that the liner managed to escape," said Noel Choong, who heads the International Maritime Bureau's piracy reporting center in Malaysia, urging all ships to remain vigilant in the area.Some of the world's leading cruise companies said Tuesday they are considering changing their itineraries to avoid going near the coast of Somalia following news of the weekend attack. Cunard's public relations manager Eric Flounders said the company has two liners, the Queen Mary 2 and Queen Victoria, scheduled to go through the Gulf of Aden sometime in March but that the company "will obviously consider changing the itinerary" should the situation not improve.
And P&O Cruises' PR Michele Andjel said the company is considering whether to reroute the Arcadia, which is due around the Gulf of Aden sometime in January. Lt. Nathan Christensen, a Bahrain-based spokesman for the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, said 21,000 ships cross the Gulf of Aden every year, but he did not have a figure for how many cruise liners are included in that figure.
"We are not advising ships to go a different way, but we do advise to go through the international corridor within the Gulf of Aden," Christensen said, referring to a security corridor, patrolled by the international coalition. The Nautica is not the first pleasure boat to be attacked.
The luxury yacht Le Ponant was attacked earlier this year, and pirates opened fire in 2005 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. The Nautica escaped by outrunning the pirates, speeding up as two small pirate skiffs tried to close in, said Tim Rubacky, spokesman for Oceania Cruises, Inc., which owns the Nautica. He said one of the skiffs made it within 300 yards (275 meters) and fired eight rifle shots at the vessel before trailing off.
"When the pirates were sighted, the captain went on the public address system and asked passengers to remain in the interior spaces of the ship and wait until he gave further instructions," he said. "Within five minutes, it was over." He noted that the ship, which communicates with international coalition forces, will return through the Gulf of Aden. Asked why the ship will re-enter pirate-infested waters, Rubacky said: "We believe this was an isolated incident."
"M/S Nautica is well-equipped to deal with these situations and the crew is well-trained," he said, but he would not comment on the specifics of their training. Rubacky refused to comment on whether there are weapons or other material aboard the ship that could help the ship's security in a hijacking. 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, according to Oceania's Web site. Such an itinerary requires the ship to travel through the dangerous waters of the Gulf of Aden.
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, that 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. NATO foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on Tuesday focused on demands for NATO to act amid growing alarm over the pirate attacks, which have continued unabated despite NATO's naval mission over the past six weeks.
Also Tuesday, the U.N. Security Council extended for another year its authorization for countries to enter Somalia's territorial waters, with advance notice, and use "all necessary means" to stop piracy and armed robbery at sea. 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. 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.
On Tuesday, a Somali pirate spokesman said his group will release the Ukrainian ship within the next two days. Sugule Ali told The Associated Press by satellite phone on Tuesday a ransom agreement had been reached, but would not say how much. The pirates had originally asked for $20 million when they hijacked the MV Faina. "Once we receive this payment, we will also make sure that all our colleagues on ship reach land safely, then the release will take place," Ali said.