- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 6, 2005

From combined dispatches

MIAMI — Pirates firing rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons tried to hijack a U.S.-owned cruise ship yesterday off the East African coast, but the vessel carrying many American passengers escaped, its owners said.

Two boats full of pirates approached the Seabourn Spirit about 100 miles off the Somali coast and opened fire, while the heavily armed bandits tried to get onboard, said Bruce Good, spokesman for the Miami-based Seabourn Cruise Line, a subsidiary of Carnival Corp.

The 161-member crew gathered the 151 passengers into a central lounge away from windows and decks during the attack, the company said.

“I looked out of the window and saw a small boat with about five people in it about 20 yards away,” said Norman Fisher, 55, a passenger.

“They were firing the rifle and then fired the rocket launcher twice. One of the rockets certainly hit the ship. It went through the side of the liner into a passenger’s suite.”

Mr. Good said that the attackers probably wanted to rob the ship.

“The crew responded with a trained response that they do to keep people from getting on the ship. They managed to evade them, repel them and keep them off the ship,” he said.

The 440-foot-long, 10,000-ton cruise ship, which is registered in the Bahamas, sustained minor damage, he said. The liner, which had its maiden voyage in 1989, can accommodate 208 guests.

“There were some windows broken, nothing that affected seaworthiness,” Mr. Good said. “The crew did an excellent job, and those guys gave up. … These guys didn’t plan this too well.”

The Spirit’s passengers included 48 Americans, 22 from Britain, 21 Canadians, 19 Germans, 19 Australians and six South Africans. The others were mostly from other European nations, Mr. Good said.

The Press Association, the British news agency, said passengers awoke to the sound of gunfire as two boats approached the liner.

Edith Laird of Seattle, who was traveling on the ship with her daughter and a friend, told British Broadcasting Corp. TV in an e-mail that her daughter saw the pirates out the window.

“There were at least three rocket-propelled grenades that hit the ship, one in a stateroom,” Mrs. Laird wrote. “We had no idea that this ship could move as fast as it did and [the captain] did his best to run down the pirates.”

Canadian Mike Rogers told CNN Radio affiliate CKNW in Vancouver that the pirates were armed with machine guns and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.

“The captain tried to run one of the boats over, but they were small boats, about 25 feet long,” he said. “Each one had four or five people on it, and [the captain] said he was going to do anything to keep them from getting onboard.”

The cruise ship had been bound for Mombasa, Kenya, at the end of a 16-day voyage from Alexandria, Egypt. It was expected to reach the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean tomorrow, and then continue on its previous schedule to Singapore, company officials said.

Mr. Good said authorities in the United States, Britain and the Seychelles were investigating the incident.

The cruise line’s president, Deborah Natansohn, said the company will re-evaluate whether to continue cruises off the coast of Somalia.

“We’re obviously evaluating the situation now, and we’ll take that decision at a later point,” she told CNN.

Miss Natansohn described the attack as a “highly unusual incident.”

“We don’t know of any other time where a cruise ship has been attacked by pirates,” she told CNN.

The Indian Ocean waters off the 2,000-mile Somali coast are classified as among the most dangerous in the world, but pirates typically target freighters that carry only a handful of crew members.

In October, Somali pirates captured a ship carrying food aid for the U.N.’s World Food Program and held it for two days before releasing the vessel, crew and cargo.

In June, a U.N.-chartered ship carrying 935 tons of rice for Somali victims of the Asian tsunami was hijacked by pirates, who held crew members hostage for three months before releasing them.

Ship owners now demand armed escorts to travel in the waters, the U.N. agency said.

The International Maritime Bureau, a division of the International Chamber of Commerce, which tracks trends in piracy, reported 15 violent incidents between March and August, compared with just two for all of 2004.

The attacks have highlighted insecurity in Somalia, which has had no government to enforce law and order since warlords ousted dictator Mohammed Siad Barre in 1991.

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