The captain of an Italian cruise ship carrying more than 1,500 people, including 74 Australians, whose Israeli security guards fought off maurauding Somali pirates, said the attack had felt like “war”.

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The cruise liner Melody continued its trip on Sunday toward the Jordanian port of Aqaba while Somali pirates seized a Yemeni oil tanker after a clash in which two raiders were killed, according to Yemeni authorities.

Ciro Pinto, captain of the Melody, said one passenger and one crew member were injured by broken glass from windows shattered by gunfire as the pirates closed on the white-hulled vessel and opened fire late on Saturday.

“It was as if we were at war,” Pinto told Italy\’s ANSA national news agency as he described the clash in which his ship — carrying 991 passengers and 536 crew — sustained smashed windows and bullet holes in the hull and a lifeboat.

Six men on a speedboat and armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles attacked the cruise ship, Pinto said.

“After four or five minutes, they tried to put a ladder on the bow,” Pinto said.

However, security guards on the ship “opened fire, and when they saw we were shooting, they abandoned their effort and went away”.

“They still followed us for about 20 minutes and continued to fire at us,” he added.

DFAT checking on Aussies

Australia\’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) says 69 passengers and five crew members are Australians who may be dual citizens and travelling on other passports.

A DFAT spokesman said the owners of the vessel, MSC Cruises, had announced there were no injuries aboard the vessel.

But Australian embassy staff in Rome and Washington, and staff from Australia\’s High Commission in Nairobi, Kenya, were working to confirm the welfare of any Australians on board.

MSC managing director Domenico Pellegrino said the Melody was protected by Israeli security guards.

“We use them because they are the best. And we have had a demonstration of that,” said Pellegrino.

The ship was to rendezvous with international naval vessels in the Indian Ocean which would escort the vessel to Jordan.

Pirates take oil tanker

But Somali pirates hit back and seized an empty Yemeni oil tanker in a new raid off the Yemeni coast. A Yemeni official said the vessel belonged to Aden refineries.

The Yemen defence ministry said on its website that two pirates were killed in the confrontation, and three other pirates and two coast guards were wounded.

According to the official, the tanker was on its way back to the southern port city of Aden from Al-Mohra province, where it had unloaded its cargo.

Earlier on Sunday, the Kenya-based environmental group Ecoterra International said Somali pirates had released a small Yemeni freighter MT Sea Princess II and its 15 crew, who had been held since January.

About 16 ships and more than 270 hostages are still being held by Somali pirates who seek huge ransoms for the release of ships.

At least 11 ships have been hijacked since the start of April, despite the presence of around 20 foreign naval vessels in the area.

Pirate attacks up tenfold

According to the International Maritime Bureau, pirate attacks off Somalia have increased tenfold in the first three months of this year compared with the same period in 2008, jumping from six to 61.

Nine Somali pirates have been jailed for 15 to 20 years by a court in the breakaway northern state of Somaliland, an official said on Sunday.

“The nine pirates were found guilty of piracy and seven of them were given a jail term of 15 years, while two others were sentenced to 20 years,” Mohamed Hashi, a Somaliland police officer, told AFP from Berbera, Somaliland\’s main port where the court hearing was held on Saturday.

The accused were arrested initially on April 18 by a Dutch navy warship patrolling the Gulf of Aden as part of NATO\’s anti-piracy mission.

Sixteen Yemeni fishermen they were holding were freed in the operation triggered by a distress call from a Greek merchant vessel.

The Dutch navy let the pirates go because they could not be prosecuted under Dutch law, the commander of the NATO fleet explained. But the pirates were apprehended by Somaliland authorities.

Cruise captain describes foiled pirate attack