MUSCAT, Oman (AP) -- Passengers on a luxury cruise liner attacked by pirates in the dangerous waters between Yemen and Somalia said Wednesday they were surprised by the assailants' boldness and described hearing the "Pop! Pop! Pop!" of the pirates' rifles firing at the ship.
Sunday's attack on the nearly 600-foot long American-operated M/S Nautica in the Gulf of Aden was the latest evidence that pirates have grown more aggressive, viewing almost any ship on the water as a potential target. But the attack lasted only five minutes and the ship with about 650 passengers and 400 crew members on board sped away quickly and was not seized.
"We didn't think they would be cheeky enough to attack a cruise ship," Wendy Armitage, of Wellington, New Zealand, told The Associated Press shortly after disembarking the ship for a daylong port stop in the Omani capital of Muscat.
"It was very minor really," she said of the attack. "But it was a surprise that they attacked us, and they did fire shots."
In about 100 attacks on ships off the Somali coast this year, 40 vessels have been hijacked. Thirteen ships remain in the hands of pirates along with more than 250 crew members including a Saudi supertanker filled with $100 million worth of crude and a Ukrainian ship loaded with 33 battle tanks.
International warships patrol the area and have created a security corridor in the region under a U.S.-led initiative, but attacks on shipping have not abated.
The cruise liner was traveling from Rome to Singapore, a route that most directly must pass through the dangerous strait between Somalia and Yemen.
During the assault, pirates fired eight rifle shots at the ship, according to its operator, Oceania Cruises, Inc. But the captain ordered passengers inside and accelerated quickly, leaving the pirates far behind in their 20- to 30-foot speedboats.
"I couldn't see them shooting, but I heard them hitting the ship, 'Pop! Pop! Pop!'" said Clyde Thornberg, on vacation from his home in Bend, Ore. "It wasn't really scary because the captain announced for the safety of everybody to get inside and get down, and by that time he was pouring on the coals to the ship and was outrunning them."
According to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, about 21,000 ships cross the Gulf of Aden every year, though the fleet could not say how many cruise liners are included in that figure. The gulf links the Mediterranean Sea, the Suez Canal and the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean.
It was not the first time a cruise liner has been attacked. In 2005, pirates opened fire on the Seabourn Spirit about 100 miles off the Somali coast. The faster cruise ship managed to escape and used a long-range acoustic device - which blasts a painful wave of sound - to distract the pirates.
Several passengers on the Nautica said the crew used a similar device to ward off Sunday's attack, and at least two passengers described hearing two "boom" sounds after the pirates fired their rifles.
The passengers had been briefed before the cruise got under way about potential dangers and on the acoustic device's importance to the vessel's defense.
"We had been reassured that they had these ghetto blasters that would go through them," said Lynne Pincini, of Australia. "Also, they said we could outrun anything, and we were in this corridor."
Separately, pirates freed a hijacked Yemeni cargo ship and its eight crew members, officials said Wednesday. The release Tuesday night came after an appeal by local clan elders and regional officials. Somali state minister Ali Abdi Aware said "no ransom was paid."
The ship was seized last month in the Arabian Sea.
"During discussion the pirates were successfully convinced to release the ship because it always brought commercial goods to the region," said Abdi-nur Faratol, one of the negotiators.
A Yemeni security official had said the pirates were initially demanding a $2 million ransom to release the ship and its crew of three Yemenis, three Somalis and two Panamanians.
Piracy also has disrupted shipments of food aid to Somalia. The United Nations says there are around 300,000 acutely malnourished children in Somalia, but attacks and kidnappings of aid workers have shut down many humanitarian projects.
The European Union announced Wednesday that a flotilla will begin anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia next week in the EU's first-ever naval operation.
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said six EU and three maritime reconnaissance aircraft will replace a NATO naval force that has been patrolling the region and escorting cargo ships carrying relief aid to Somalia since the end of October.
Though NATO ships have successfully delivered humanitarian supplies to Somalia, they have not been able to stem the upsurge in pirate attacks on foreign shipping in one of the most important shipping lanes in the world.
Cmdr. Peter Reesink, aboard the Dutch ship de Ruyter escorting U.N. food aid to Somalia, said Wednesday that his mission is to protect the ship and he does not rule out using force.
"So if I have to I will destroy the (pirate) ship," he told AP Television News. "We will try to scare them away, we will try to call them on different radio circuits, if that doesn't help we will shoot some flares. If that doesn't help, we will try a shot over the bow first, and if that doesn't work, then we will start to aim and fire directly."
Solana said the EU warships will arrive Monday, and the hand-over with the NATO force will take place Dec. 15.
"These tasks will be done with very robust rules of engagement," Solana told reporters on the sidelines of a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Belgium.
On Tuesday, the U.N. Security Council extended for another year its authorization for countries to enter Somalia's territorial waters, with advance notice, and use "all necessary means" to stop piracy and armed robbery at sea.
Somalia has not had a functioning government since 1991, and pirates have taken advantage of the country's lawlessness to launch attacks on foreign shipping from the Somali coast.