NAIROBI - 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 beleaguered, 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 pirate haven.
"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.