Cruise lets off passengers to avoid pirate threat

HODEIDA, Yemen (AP) -- A cruise ship let off hundreds of passengers in Yemen on Wednesday so they could fly to the other side of the Arabian Peninsula and avoid the dangerous Gulf of Aden where pirates have attacked dozens of boats.

The M/S Columbus arrived in the western Yemeni port of Hodeida, where 420 passengers and crew got off the ship. Some immediately flew on a charter flight to Dubai, while others first toured the Yemeni capital and mountain villages before flying to the glitzy Persian Gulf city, said Mohammed Abdel-Moghni, the head of the Yemen tour agency that handled their onward travel.

The German cruise liner then continued with a limited crew through the Gulf of Aden, where Somali pirates have targeted commercial ships, cruise liners and yachts.

Pirates have attacked more than 30 vessels and hijacked about a dozen of them since NATO deployed a four-vessel flotilla in the region on Oct. 24. They have netted more than $30 million in ransoms along Africa's longest and most lawless coast.

Two Yemeni fishing boats were hijacked by pirates on Wednesday in the Gulf of Aden, said Yemen's Interior Ministry. Twenty-two Yemeni fishermen were on board the boats, which the pirates steered toward the Somali coast, the ministry said in a statement. No other details were immediately available.

Also Wednesday, a Philippines official confirmed that Somali pirates had freed a Greek cargo ship and its 19 crew members on Monday, nearly three months after it was hijacked in the Gulf of Aden.

Its 19 crew members - 17 Filipinos, one Chinese and one Ukrainian - were in "good health" and the Greek-owned M/V Captain Stephanos was sailing to Italy before proceeding to Greece, said Philippines Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Esteban Conejos, citing a report by ship owners. He was unaware if a ransom had been paid to the pirates.

The M/S Columbus' passengers will spend three days at a five-star hotel in Dubai waiting to rejoin the 490-foot vessel in Oman's port of Salalah for the remainder of their six-month round-the-world trip, which began in Italy and ends in mid-May.

In Dubai, one of the ship's passengers said they were told of the change in plans a few days ago.

The trip "cost a lot of money, (and) it was more secure to do it like this. It's the best the company could do for us," said retired high school teacher Greinert Burkhard, of Hildesheim, Germany.

He said passengers have access to newspapers and Internet on the ship and knew about the Nov. 30 attempted pirate hijacking of another cruise liner in the Gulf of Aden. Pirates fired on the ship, which was carrying about 1,000 people, but the vessel outran the assailants.

Hamburg, Germany-based Hapag-Lloyd cruise company said it took the precaution with the M/S Columbus because the German government denied its request for a security escort through the waters.

The surge in piracy in the busy shipping lane leading to and from the Suez Canal threatens to take a heavy economic toll. Some commercial shipping companies have announced plans to bypass the Gulf of Aden by taking the much longer and costlier route around the southern tip of Africa.

At least two other cruise operators also have altered or canceled routes that would have brought passengers within reach of pirates.

Ships still being held by pirates for huge ransoms include a Saudi oil tanker carrying $100 million in crude and a Ukrainian ship loaded with tanks and heavy weapons.

The European Union is replacing NATO's anti-piracy mission on Monday. The EU mission will include six ships and up to three aircraft patrolling at any one time, and will station armed guards aboard some cargo vessels, such as ships transporting food aid to Somalia.


Associated Press writer Oliver Teves in Manila, Philippines and Barbara Surk in Dubai, United Arab Emirates contributed to this report.

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