, BRUSSELS, May 15 – A helicopter gunship swooped over the Somali coast to strike at a pirate stronghold Tuesday in a major escalation of an international effort to protect vital shipping lanes.
The helicopter lifted off from one of several ships in an EU armada offshore, blasting a stockpile of pirate skiffs on a beach in Somalia’s central Galmudug region in the dead of night, officials said.
It marks the first time an international naval force sent to protect the approaches to the Red Sea have struck at pirate assets on land after years of trying to prevent attacks at sea.
“We believe this action by the EU Naval Force will further increase the pressure on, and disrupt pirates’ efforts to get out to sea to attack merchant shipping and dhows,” said the EU force’s commander, Rear Admiral Duncan Potts.
NATO and European Union warships has battled pirates at sea since 2008, but the EU decided to step up the fight in March by authorising strikes on assets stored on land.
They police an area 1.5 times the size of Europe, highlighting the challenge to stop pirates using small fast skiffs, grappling hooks and rocket-propelled grenades to hijack ships and take hostages for ransom.
The new EU mandate allows warships or aircraft to fire at fuel barrels, boats, trucks or other equipment stowed on beaches, but it is not aimed at hitting the pirates themselves. It also bars the deployment of land troops.
“The local Somali people and fishermen — many of whom have suffered so much because of piracy in the region, can be reassured that our focus was on known pirate supplies and will remain so in the future,” Potts said.
The EU naval force said no Somalis were injured in Tuesday’s strike and that the helicopter returned safely after the operation.
“This kind of action is very carefully considered,” said Timo Lange, a spokesman for the EU mission.
The EU’s Operation Atalanta has deployed between five and 10 warships off the Somali coast since 2008 to escort humanitarian aid shipments and thwart pirate raids on commercial vessels using the busy sea route.
A spokesman refused to disclose the nationality of the helicopter used in the attack, but nine EU warships are currently deployed by France, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Italy and The Netherlands.
Several other nations, including Russia and China, also provide protection for their ships as they pass through the busy shipping route through the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean.
The EU says eight vessels and 235 sailors are currently still held hostage.
“The EU is working with Somali, regional and international partners to combat the scourge of piracy in the oceans off the coast of East Africa,” said a spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
“Piracy continues to adversely affect shipping in the region, threatening peaceful commerce, weakening and undermining the economy of neighbouring countries,” the spokesman said.
Somali attacks cost the world nearly $7 billion (5.5 billion euros) in 2011, including more than $2 billion for military operations, armed guards and equipment to protect ships, according to the US-based Oceans Beyond Piracy monitoring group.