NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) -The luxury American cruise ship steaming across the Gulf of Aden with hundreds of well-heeled tourists just might have been too much for Somali pirates to resist.

But the six bandits, riding in two skiffs and firing rifle shots at the gleaming ship, were outrun in minutes when the captain of M/S Nautica gunned the engine and sped away, a spokesman for the company said Tuesday.

Still, the implications had the pirates hijacked the ship added a new dimension to the piracy scourge, as NATO foreign ministers groped for solutions at a meeting in Brussels and the United Nations extended an international piracy-fighting mandate for another year.

The potential for massive ransom payments from the families of hundreds of rich tourists may encourage similar attempts, especially following the successful capture of a Ukrainian cargo ship laden with tanks and a Saudi oil tanker carrying $100 million in crude.

And the brazen attack also raises questions: What was a cruise ship doing in the pirate-infested waters of the Gulf of Aden? How many such targets are sailing these seas, and how can they be protected?

Even the pirates’ motives were in question: they could simply have been testing the defenses of the massive ship, rather than making a real effort to hijack it.

Sunday’s attack on the M/S Nautica, which was reported Tuesday, comes several weeks after a NATO mission served mainly to underscore the impotence of the world community. A handful of Western ships can do little to prevent attacks in a vast sea, and without the right to board hijacked vessels, they can only watch as the booty is towed to port.

“It is very fortunate that the liner managed to escape,” said Noel Choong, who heads the International Maritime Bureau’s piracy reporting center in Malaysia, urging all ships to remain vigilant.

Some of the world’s leading cruise companies said Tuesday they are considering changing their itineraries to avoid going near the coast of Somalia following news of the weekend attack.

Cunard’s public relations manager Eric Flounders said the company has two liners, the Queen Mary 2 and Queen Victoria, scheduled to go through the Gulf of Aden in March but added the company “will obviously consider changing the itinerary” should the situation not improve.

Spokeswoman Michele Andjel said P&O Cruises is considering whether to reroute the Arcadia, which is due around the Gulf of Aden in January.

Lt. Nathan Christensen, a Bahrain-based spokesman for the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, said 21,000 ships cross the Gulf of Aden every year, but he did not know 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.

“We are not advising ships to go a different way, but we do advise to go through the international corridor within the Gulf of Aden,” Christensen said, referring to a security corridor patrolled by the international coalition.

Pirates have attacked about 100 ships off the Somali coast this year and hijacked 40 vessels. They still hold 14 ships along with more than 250 crew members, according to maritime officials.

NATO said an Italian destroyer prevented five cargo ships from being hijacked Tuesday in the Gulf of Aden by blocking the small pirate boats from the ships and using a helicopter to disperse them.

The Nautica is not the first pleasure boat to be attacked.

The luxury yacht Le Ponant was attacked earlier this year, and pirates opened fire in 2005 on the Seabourn Spirit off the Somali coast. The cruise ship evaded capture by using its speed and a long-range acoustic device that blasted a painful wave of sound at the pirates.

The Nautica also escaped by speeding up as two small pirate skiffs tried to close in, said Tim Rubacky, a spokesman for Oceania Cruises, Inc., which owns the Nautica. He said one skiff made it within 300 yards (275 meters) of the cruise ship and fired eight rifle shots at the vessel before trailing off.

“When the pirates were sighted, the captain went on the public address system and asked passengers to remain in the interior spaces of the ship and wait until he gave further instructions,” Rubacky said. “Within five minutes, it was over.”

He said the ship still plans to return through the Gulf of Aden.

“We believe this was an isolated incident,” he said. “M/S Nautica is well-equipped to deal with these situations and the crew is well-trained.”

However, Rubacky would not comment on the crew’s training or whether the ship had weapons or other devices to help fight off a hijacking.

The Nautica was on a 32-day cruise from Rome to Singapore, with stops at ports in Italy, Egypt, Oman, Dubai, India, Malaysia and Thailand, according to Oceania’s Web site. Choong said the ship was carrying 656 passengers and 399 crew members.

The liner arrived in the southern Oman port of Salalah on Monday morning, and passengers toured the city before leaving for the capital, Muscat, that evening, an Oman tourism official said.

In New York 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.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected to address the Security Council on the subject of piracy at a followup session Dec. 16.

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.

In two of the most daring attacks, pirates seized a Ukrainian freighter loaded with 33 battle tanks and other heavy weapons in September and captured the Saudi oil tanker on Nov. 15.

On Tuesday, a Somali pirate spokesman said his group will release the Ukrainian ship and crew within the next two days after a ransom is paid.

Sugule Ali told The Associated Press by satellite phone on Tuesday that a ransom agreement had been reached, but would not say how much. The pirates had originally asked for $20 million when they hijacked the MV Faina.

“Once we receive this payment, we will also make sure that all our colleagues on ship reach land safely, then the release will take place,” Ali said.

Associated Press writers Katharine Houreld in Nairobi, Kenya, Pan Pylas in London, Carley Petesch in New York, John Heilprin at the United Nations, Barbara Surk in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Saeed al-Nahdy in Muscat, Oman, contributed to this report.

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