Israeli Guards Aboard Italian Cruise Ship Repel Pirates Off Somalian Coast

A German-Italian cruise ship with 1,500 people on board fended off a pirate attack far off the coast of Somalia on Saturday, in which the vessel's private Israeli security force exchanged fire with the bandits and drove them off, the ship's commander said yesterday.

Cmdr. Ciro Pinto told Italian state radio that six men in a small white speed boat approached the cruise ship Melody and opened fire Saturday night, but retreated after the Israeli security officers aboard the cruise ship returned fire.

"It felt like we were in a war," Pinto said.

None of the approximately 1,000 passengers and 500 crew members were hurt, the Melody's owner, Msc Cruises, said in a statement issued by its German branch.

Saturday's attack occurred about 325 kilometers north of the Seychelles, and about 800 kilometers east of Somalia, according to the anti-piracy flotilla headquarters of the Maritime Security Center (Horn of Africa).

Domenico Pellegrino, head of the cruise line, said Msc Cruises hired the Israelis because they were the best-trained security staff, the ANSA news agency reported.

Security work aboard cruise ships is very popular among young Israelis just out of the army; the job is seen as a chance to save money and travel at the same time. Hundreds of veterans and reservists of elite Israel Defense Force units, including the naval commandos, are employed in security work on cruise ships and oil rigs in areas subject to pirate attacks.

As opposed to arms dealing, which requires Defense Ministry permits, there is no government follow-up on IDF veterans working in security worldwide, and therefore the exact number of veterans employed in the field is unknown.

Veterans of the naval commando unit have been in very high demand after the September 11th terror attack on the Twin Towers, as shipping companies, like airlines, were required to upgrade the level of security on their ships.

"When it comes to security on ships or oil rigs, it's not enough to know how to shoot and attack," said a former Israeli naval commando officer who has worked in security on ships. "There are other skills like [taking] action under difficult conditions at sea, operating radar and special marine security equipment, as well as knowing the weak points on ships of various sizes," the officer added.