After wreaking havoc on the high seas for years, Somali pirates are facing a counter-attack on land for the first time.
European Union forces raided a pirate base near the Somali port of Haradheere last night, destroying several boats, setting fire to a fuel depot, and opening a new front in the long battle with the ruthless pirates who have rampaged across shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden.
The counter-attack was spearheaded by at least one European helicopter gunship, which took off from an EU naval ship in darkness and fired at the pirate skiffs and other equipment at the pirate base.
"The focused, precise and proportionate action was conducted from the air, and all forces returned safely to EU warships on completion," said a vaguely worded statement by the EU naval force that operates off the Somali coastline.
"Whilst assessment is on-going, surveillance of the area during the action indicates that no Somalis were injured ashore as a result of EU action," the statement added.
A pirate commander, Bile Hussein, told Associated Press that the raid had destroyed nine of the pirate speed boats, along with fuel depots and an arms store.
"They destroyed our equipment to ashes," he said. "It was a key supplies centre for us. The fuel contributed to the flames and destruction. Nothing was spared."
In March, the EU authorized its naval forces to launch land attacks in Somalia, and the raid today was the first time it had exploited the new rules. A French amphibious assault ship, capable of containing 16 helicopters, was added to the European naval force two months ago and may have been involved in today's attack.
The pirates, which are currently holding about 300 sailors hostage on about 10 hijacked ships, have ranged as far as 2,800 kilometres in their hunt for ships to attack. They use speedboats and rocket-propelled grenades to hijack their targets.
Last week, off the coast of Oman, the pirates hijacked a Greek-owned oil tanker with 135,000 tonnes of oil on board.
"Preventing them getting out to sea is a crucial step in removing their impunity ashore and to further the success of counter-piracy operations," the EU said.
The latest attack has added a new chapter to the long history of foreign military intervention in Somalia. While the EU and the United States are launching sporadic air raids on Somali targets, tens of thousands of foreign troops are currently operating inside Somalia, deployed by countries such as Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, Burundi and others. Canada and the United States were among another long list of nations that sent troops into Somalia in the 1990s.
Canada and many other countries have sent warships into the Indian Ocean in recent years to protect merchant ships from pirate attacks. Nine European warships are currently on an anti-pirate mission in the Indian Ocean, and NATO has its own armada of ships on a similar mission.
The pirates have inflicted heavy damage to the shipping industry. Last year alone, they collected about $160-million in ransoms. They also force ship-owners to pay heavy costs for security and insurance. The total cost of the pirate attacks was nearly $7-billion last year, according to an independent analysis.
There are an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 pirates in Somalia and in hijacked "motherships" from which they stage their attacks. Last year they attacked about 200 ships, although they managed to hijack only two dozen ships because of heavier security measures.