* First time European Union gunships have hit coastline
* EU force uses helicopters and surveillance aircraft
* Pirates hijacked oil tanker last week
By Yara Bayoumy
NAIROBI, May 15 (Reuters) - European helicopter gunships attacked a pirate
base on the Somali coast on Tuesday, destroying five speedboats, in the
first such airborne strike on land by the anti-piracy force.
The Somali-based pirates responded by threatening to kill crew being held on
more than a dozen hijacked vessels if they were attacked again.
The EU Naval Force (EU Navfor) said it had carried out the overnight raid on
pirate targets using helicopters and surveillance aircraft with the
agreement of the beleagured, Western-backed Somali government.
It was the first time EU Navfor had taken its fight against the pirates to
Somali soil since its mandate was expanded earlier this year to allow
strikes on land as well as sea.
But at risk are over 300 hostages of various nationalities held by the
pirates, who have so far generally refrained from killing crew as they seek
multi-million dollar ransoms.
A Somali pirate who identified himself as Abdi told Reuters that a
helicopter attacked the central Somali coastline near Hardhere, a known
"An unidentified helicopter destroyed five of our speedboats early in the
morning. There were no casualties. We were setting off from the shore when
the helicopter attacked us. We ran away without counter-attacking," he said.
"If we are attacked while with hostages, we shall take any necessary step to
save ourselves, we may also kill the hostages if we miss other options to
survive," Abdi told Reuters.
NO BOOTS ON THE GROUND
EU Navfor said it had carried out the attack to destroy pirate equipment,
four days after Somali gunmen hijacked a Greek-owned oil tanker carrying
close to a million barrels of crude oil in the Arabian Sea.
EU Navfor's Operation Commander, Rear Admiral Duncan Potts, said the attack
would "further increase the pressure on, and disrupt, pirates' efforts to
get out to sea to attack merchant shipping and dhows".
Somalia's government said it had backed the strike against the pirates, and
encouraged further attacks. "(The government) and the EU had agreed upon
inland attacks on pirates, avoiding civilian casualties. We were aware of
the EU operation today," government spokesman Abdirahman Osman told Reuters.
"We encourage frequent in land attacks - this is the only solution to
piracy," he said.
EU Navfor said no Somalis had been wounded as a result of the attack and no
EU forces had landed on Somali territory, which has been lawless and torn by
armed violence since warlords overthrew dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991.
"We have monitored several locations for quite a long time and the time and
place chosen was one of the best opportunities," said Timo Lange, a media
officer for EU Navfor.
He said the force would launch similar attacks in future "given that those
targets will show up again".
In March the EU extended its counter-piracy operation off the coast of
Somalia to the end of 2014 and expanded the area it covers to include the
"The concern is that pirates will simply relocate logistics bases further
inland, possibly among coastal communities, to avoid EU airborne attacks,"
Rory Lamrock, an intelligence analyst with security firm AKE, told Reuters.
"Hostages are still a ransomable commodity and intentional murders will
remain unlikely, but an escalation in violence directed at hostages is
definitely a possible response."
Despite successful efforts to stop attacks in the Gulf of Aden shipping
lane, international navies have struggled to contain piracy in the Indian
Ocean and Arabian Sea due to their limited resources and the vast distances
"(It) may take time to limit the overall scope of pirate activities. The
pirates have had virtually unconstrained ability to operate for five or six
years now and that won't be rolled back rapidly," said a maritime analyst
who declined to be named.
The Somali pirates have raked in millions of dollars in ransoms in recent
years in what has become a highly organised international criminal
A study published earlier this year by the One Earth Future Foundation
showed Somali piracy cost the world economy some $7 billion last year, with
ransoms paid reaching $160 million.
Somali pirates are switching back to using smaller cargo and fishing vessels
as "motherships", hoping to evade detection in the face of more robust
The International Transport Workers' Federation, one of the biggest unions
representing seafarers, welcomed the EU Navfor attack.
"Limited though the effects of any one single operation can be, it sets a
precedent for future actions. It is particularly welcome in a week that has
seen increased use of weapons and violence by pirates," said union chairman
David Heinde. (Additional reporting by Mohamed Ahmed in Mogadishu and
William Maclean and Jonathan Saul in London; Editing by Richard Lough and
C Thomson Reuters 2012 All rights reserved
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Received on Tue May 15 2012 - 19:07:52 EDT