MIAMI_It sounds like a scene in a Hollywood blockbuster: Pirates hit a luxury cruise ship with rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns off a lawless African country. The cruise crew tries to ram both pirate boats, uses an earsplitting high-tech weapon on the attackers and evades them.
That was the real-life situation the crew and passengers of the Seabourn Spirit found themselves in off Somalia last weekend. With piracy common in some areas and terrorism fears present after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, cruise lines say they train their crews and have security measures to respond effectively to these threats.
But security experts say that despite all the preparations, cruise liners are vulnerable to attacks like this one or the deadly bombing by al-Qaida-linked militants of the USS Cole in Yemen five years ago in which 17 sailors were killed.
"No ship apart from a naval vessel is really prepared to protect against a waterborne assault of the sort against the Cole," said Kim Petersen, president of maritime security consultant SeaSecure and a former cruise line security official. "Even those ships that are best equipped to cope with such a threat, in the case of the Cole, are in a difficult situation."
Cruise industry officials said the Spirit's successful efforts to repel the attackers validate security plans that all ships must have in place under U.S. and international law. They point out that no passenger was injured on the Spirit and just one crew member had minor injuries.
"Cruising is and has been one of the most safe vacations that you can engage in and will remain so," said Michael Crye, president of the International Council of Cruise Lines, an industry lobbying group.
Cruise lines are in constant communication with authorities on land and the U.S. military responded to the attack on the Spirit, he said. The U.S. counterterrorism task force for the Horn of Africa is based in Djibouti, which borders Somalia.
But he said that attacks on cruise ships are rare - this was the first since Palestinian terrorists hijacked the Achille Lauro in the Mediterranean in 1985 and killed a wheelchair-bound American Jew.
Cruise lines are reluctant to talk about their specific security plan for fear of compromising safety. Crye said cruise companies are allowed to arm their crews, but he wouldn't say if they did.
Some security consultants say that cruise lines are reluctant to place armed guards onboard fearing that it would tarnish their image with passengers.
Other known defenses on cruise ships include high-pressure fire hoses used to prevent intruders from boarding ships.
That method was also used by the Spirit's crew. Seabourn Cruise Line, the Carnival Corp. subsidiary that operates the ship, also has bought the high-tech sonic weapons, which were developed for the U.S. military after the Cole bombing.
The Long Range Acoustical Device sends earsplitting noise in a concentrated beam. Its maker, American Technology Corp. of San Diego, doesn't know of any cruise lines other than Miami-based Seabourn that have installed them, said A.J. Ballard, the company's director of military operations.
Some security experts have questioned why the Spirit was only about 100 miles (161 kilometers) off the Somali coast when the International Maritime Bureau has for months warned ships to stay at least 150 miles (241 kilometers) away from that coast because of an increase in pirate attacks.
Many cruise lines have tried to avoid the area, but vessels going from the Mediterranean to Asia or Africa must pass through there.
Seabourn spokesman Bruce Good said the line hasn't decided whether to change its routes. But he said the Spirit was on its highest alert while there.
"As far as we're concerned the incident is behind us. We are now in the next phase, getting people where they need to be and continuing with what we do for a living, which as make people happy on board," he said.
Seabourn has said it appeared the attackers were pirates whose motivation was robbery.
But Petersen, the security consultant, doubted that was the case. Pirates, he said, would have tried to disable the ship's steering and propulsion if they were trying to board. Witnesses, however, said the attackers shot grenades at the passengers.
Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said Monday that the attackers might have been terrorists.
Either way, cruise lines fear that their image as safe havens of fun could be tarnished. After the Achille Lauro hijacking, the eastern Mediterranean cruise market had a sharp decline in traffic. The Sept. 11 attacks forced cruise companies to offer heavy discounts to lure leery passengers onto ships, and ticket prices are only now getting back to pre-attack levels as the industry is having a year of record profits and traffic.
Because no one was killed in the Spirit attack, travelers probably won't be spooked, said Jeff Sharlach, chairman and CEO of The Jeffrey Group, a public relations firm that runs crisis management teams for companies like FedEx Corp.
"You want to avoid making it into a bigger news story than it is naturally. Sometimes if you respond too aggressively, you make it more frightening than it is," said Sharlach, whose company doesn't work with cruise lines.
On the Net:
International Council of Cruise Lines: http://www.iccl.org
Carnival Corp.: http://www.carnivalcorp.com
Seabourn Cruise Line: http://www.seabourn.com
<<Associated Press WorldStream -- 11/09/05>>