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Pirates attack U.S. cruise ship

Vessel outruns 2 armed boats off coast of Somalia

MIAMI — Pirates attacked a luxury cruise ship off the Horn of Africa early Saturday, waking passengers with a daring sunrise fusillade of grenades and gunshots before the ship's crew outran the two boats carrying the assailants, the Miami-based cruise line reported.

None of the 151 passengers aboard the Seabourn Spirit was injured in the 5:30 a.m. assault, although one crewman was hit by shrapnel and the ship sustained minor damage, Seabourn Cruise Line spokesman Bruce Good said in Miami.

Charles Supple, a retired Palm Springs, Calif., physician on board, gave a dramatic account of the showdown in an e-mail to his son in Sacramento, Calif., shortly after the vessel reached safer waters. The ship was en route from Egypt to Kenya and was sailing idyllically off the coast of Somalia when "all hell broke loose," he said.

The north coast of Somalia has been plagued for years by pirate attacks on cargo ships, including several recent raids on vessels carrying humanitarian aid to the strife-torn region. But Saturday's attack was a rare assault on a leisure vessel.

"The captain came on the loudspeaker, telling everyone that there were 'unfriendly' vessels on the starboard side and to stay in our rooms. The plink of bullets on the side was very noticeable," Supple, 78, said.

Supple said he had grabbed his camera and was peering out his stateroom window when he saw a pirate with a rocket launcher "aim seemingly at me and fire. What a flash! I dove to the other side and the rocket hit two decks up and two staterooms forward."

The pirates, about four or five in each of two 25-foot boats, continued firing and trying to board the ship. The captain ordered all passengers to assemble in an interior lounge for safety, and the ship accelerated toward the portside, Supple recounted, in what appeared to be an attempt to ram the assailants. The ship then took off at full speed, he said.

"After 10 minutes or so, though it seemed like hours, we managed to pull away, as I think they were running out of gas to make it back to the shore," Supple said of the gunmen. "We suffered many broken windows, and the rocket I saw stuck in the side, leaving a big black area from the explosion, but no major damage."

Cruise industry officials praised the swift response of the 161-member crew and its Norwegian captain, Sven-Erik Pedersen. But they added that a thorough review and discussion about future operations in that area of the Indian Ocean will be undertaken.

"This reaffirms some of the precautions we've taken in the past as relates to staying away from certain areas," said Michael Crye, president of the International Council of Cruise Lines, an industry association based in Arlington, Va. "But the fact that gunfire and pirates got close enough to even peripherally injure people, that's a lot closer than we'd like them."

Crye noted the attack took place 70 miles off the Somali coast, a distance usually considered safe from the bands of thieves who infest the area.

Just two days earlier, the World Food Program had warned that piracy around Somalia was cutting off the flow of aid to the region because ship owners were demanding armed escorts.

Good said the cruise line knows nothing about the attackers, but officials presumed their motive was robbery.