European Union forces on Tuesday attacked a Somali pirate base for the first time, using a combat helicopter to strafe several of the signature fiberglass skiffs that the pirates use to hijack ships.
Villagers in Xarardheere, a notorious pirate base on the central Somali coast and home to several of the tougher, more experienced pirate gangs, reported hearing loud explosions from the attack. One question now is how will the pirates respond and if they will vent their anger and retaliate against any of the hostages they are holding.
Lt. Cmdr. Jacqueline Sherriff, a spokeswoman for the European Union's anti-piracy force, said that the European forces destroyed at least five skiffs that were still on land with small arms fire and that the attack lasted a couple of minutes.
This is a fantastic opportunity,’’ she said. “What we want to do is make life more difficult for these guys.’’
A European Union statement emphasized that this was an air attack and that at no point did E.U. Naval Force ‘boots’ go ashore.’’ The statement also said that no one, including Somalis in Xarardheere, was injured. European Union patrol planes had been spying on the Xarardheere area for several weeks before the attack and more strikes against the pirates were planned, Commander Sherriff said.
In March, the European Union, which has been vexed for years by the scourge of Somali piracy, toughened its anti-piracy mandate to allow forces patrolling the Indian Ocean to attack Somali bases on land.
Before that, the forces were allowed to go after pirates only at sea. The mandate was explicit, though, that the European forces would not be allowed to step ashore, essentially guaranteeing that any attacks on the pirate bases would be air raids.
Somali pirates have hijacked hundreds of ships in the past few years, everything from a sailboat skippered by a retired British couple and creaky old wooden Arab dhows to supertankers owned by the Saudi government.
The pirates have netted hundreds of millions of dollars from the hijackings, which they often re-invest in weapons and men. Recently, they have attacked ships as far away as Sri Lanka, nearly 2,000 miles from Somalia.
Their standard procedure is to swarm a vessel with a bevy of small skiffs, each packed with armed men; gain control of the ship; steer it back to a pirate base like Xaradheere; and then demand a ransom from the ship's owner, the families of the crew or both.
Often the money literally falls from the sky: the favored way of making payment these days is to drop a bundle of shrink-wrapped cash from a small plane and have it drift down by parachute to the pirates.
Because so much of Somalia is lawless, the pirate gangs have dozens of hideouts where they can hold hostages with impunity.
But this year the piracy business seems to have taken a hit. Though Somali pirates are still holding about 17 vessels and 300 crewmen hostage, that figure is dramatically down from a few years ago when the pirates had dozens of captured ships under their control and nearly 1,000 seamen to ransom back.
The combination of beefed-up naval patrols, increased prosecutions and some progress toward a stable Somali government appears to be making it more difficult for the pirates.
Somalia has languished without a functioning central government for more than 20 years, though in recent months, the transitional authority in the capital, Mogadishu, seems to be gaining momentum and doing a better job of at controlling at least the capital.