No passengers were injured but there were reports that some attempted to repel the pirates by hurling chairs overboard at the dinghy, before being ordered below decks by the captain.
Commander Pinto said he suspected that the small boat used by the pirates had been launched from a nearby “mother ship”, because “there is no way it could have made it from Somalia on its own”.
Italian authorities said that a Spanish warship, the Marques de Ensenada, would escort the 35,000-tonne MSC Melody to safety.
Commander Pinto, who ordered the crew to turn the boat into the waves to make it more difficult to board, said that pistols kept in a safe on the ship were handed out to security staff hired from an Israeli private security company. The guards opened fire as the pirates tried to clamber up the ship. They followed the MSC Melody for another 20 minutes, still firing, before giving up. “It felt like we were in war,” Commander Pinto said.
David Cavenagh, an Australian journalist on the MSC Melody, said the passengers initially thought the gunshots were fireworks and did not realise they were under attack until an announcement was made over the ship’s public address system. They had been told before setting sail that the ship would steer a course farther from the Somali coast than usual to reduce the risk of an attack.
Some cruise lines refuse to equip guards with small arms because it is forbidden in some of the ports where they dock. However, industry sources said guards were often used “discreetly” and cruise line security work was popular with young Israelis who had recently completed army service.
Domenico Pellegrino, the managing director of MSC, confirmed that the ship was protected by Israeli security guards. “We use them because they are the best — and we have just had a demonstration of that,” he said.
The MSC Melody, which was heading for Aqaba when attacked, was on a 22-day cruise from Durban, South Africa, to Genoa, its home port. The eight-deck ship, launched in 1982 and refurbished in 2001, is the largest of the MSC fleet, with 532 cabins and a capacity of 1,492 passengers.
Pirates have attacked more than a hundred ships off the Somali coast over the past year. Another Italian-owned vessel, the tugboat Buccaneer, was seized off Somalia on 11 April with 16 crew members on board.
In other incidents over the weekend two pirates were killed in a clash with Yemeni coast guards who were unable to prevent them seizing the empty oil tanker Qana. A Turkish cruise ship, Ariva 3, with two British and four Japanese crew aboard, survived a pirate attack near the Yemeni island of Jabal Zuqar yesterday, according to the Yemeni El-Awlaqi Marine company. It said the pirates opened fire for 15 minutes “and stopped for no reason”.