Israeli Teams Are Becoming the Anti-pirate Heroes of the World

Pirates who attacked an Italian cruise ship near Somalia last Saturday were repelled by Israeli security guards on board.

Pirates attacked the Italian cruise ship Melody, carrying more than 1,500 passengers and crew, 1,000 kilometers off Somalia last Saturday, but were repelled by Israeli security guards on board. The security guards fired over the pirates' heads, forcing them to retreat.

This was the first time that a ship's crew fought back after being attacked in the pirate-infested waters between Somalia and the Seychelles, rather than giving in to the robbers. In the unclarity surrounding the incident, more than one party tried to claim the success, and one unconfirmed report said that Israeli "commando units" were involved in the incident.

The truth, as usual, was far less heroic. The "heroes" were members of the ship's Israeli security team, employed by Mano International Security, an Israeli company specializing in maritime security services.

Company owner Mano Nik (Nikfahama) returned from Italy yesterday, where he participated in a preliminary investigation of the incident. "The guys acted exactly according to the regulations and I'm proud of them," Nik told Haaretz on Thursday.

He refused to give more details, however. "The company has been working for 22 years covertly, and has no interest in exposure," he said.

Six pirates in a boat reportedly approached the Melody at night and opened fire, throwing ladders onto the ship's hull with the intention of hijacking it. But the Israeli security guards fired back and after a 10-minute gunfire exchange drove the marauders off.

The ship's captain, Ciro Pinto, said the guards fired in the air to drive off the pirates, but a member of one of the pirate gangs operating in the area was cited saying that one pirate had been hit. "It was the first time we have encountered resistance," the Somali bandit was quoted as saying.

After the attack the Melody continued its cruise accompanied by a Spanish warship. It may dock at Aqaba port tomorrow on its way to the ship's home base in Genoa in northern Italy. A Spanish fleet ship this week reportedly intercepted the boat carrying the pirates suspected of attacking the Melody, but this has not been verified.

According to some sources, Mano Nik served as a major in the Israel Air Force, where he dealt with air security. After his release he began his civilian career as a ship's security guard, eventually becoming the owner of an international company registered in Europe. The Petah Tikva-based company's Web site says its clients include MSC Cruises, the Italian company that owns the Melody cruise ship. A picture of the Melody appears on the Web site.

The security guards who saved the Melody, like those on many passenger ships worldwide, are mostly young Israelis after their military service, for whom this is a well-paid temporary job. Many of them are not former navy men, and certainly not naval commandos. "The job requirements include combatant military service but it doesn't matter what kind," a source who worked in the field and wishes to remain anonymous told Haaretz.

The Israeli security guards' tasks on cruise ships are varied. They must protect the ship from pirates or terrorists, but also act as security officers against thieves and keep the order, especially if there is a casino on board.

Mano security guards won praise already 15 years ago after extracting passengers of the Italian ship Achille Lauro, which was hijacked in 1985 by Palestinian terrorists and set alight.

Due to the complexity of international law, ship security guards do not always carry weapons. Sometimes the weapons are kept in the captain's safe until it is necessary to take them out. The quantities and types of weapons are determined by the company's policy and the risks facing the ship. Nobody wants to speak about the legal aspects. The most dangerous shipping lanes for piracy are in West Africa off Nigeria, the Malacca Straits in Southeast Asia, and the seas off the Somali-Yemeni coasts. Mano International Security's clients include Greek and Italian cruise companies. Israeli security guards and experts are in high demand in maritime security due to their experience, reputation and military training. Large shipping companies like Royal Caribbean, in which the Ofer brothers are partners, or the Arison family's Carnival Cruise Line and the Italian Costa Cruises have their own security departments.

However, they employ many Israelis as security guards, especially as team leaders. Other Israeli companies specializing in maritime security include Eli Leffler's Hashita and former Navy commander Micha Ram's Spike. International awareness of the importance of maritime security increased in the past year after pirates hijacked some 400 boats, ships and yachts, says Leffler.