By Yara Bayoumy
NAIROBI (Reuters) - The European Union's anti-piracy force on Tuesday attacked pirate bases along the Somali coast for the first time, using helicopters to destroy suspect boats.
Stepping up efforts against a multi-million dollar criminal enterprise that international navies have struggled to contain, the EU Naval Force (EU Navfor) said it had conducted an overnight attack on pirate targets using helicopters and surveillance aircraft.
It was the first time the EU 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 at sea.
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 hunting boats early in the morning. There were no casualties," he said. "We were setting off from the shore when the helicopter attacked us. We ran away without counter-attacking."
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".
Initial surveillance indicated that no Somalis had been wounded as a result of the attack, EU Navfor said.
"We have monitored several locations for quite a long time and the time and place chosen was one of the best opportunities," Timo Lange, a media officer for EU Navfor, said.
He said the force would launch similar attacks in future "given that those targets will show up again".
The EU extended its counter-piracy operation off the coast of Somalia in March to the end of 2014 and expanded the area it covers to include the coastline itself.
Until Tuesday's attack, it had only operated in waters off Somalia however. But the decision to extend operations to the Somali coastline itself means it is now able to target weapons and other equipment stored on the shore in order to reduce the pirates' ability to launch attacks.
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 involved.
"As for the overall effect of this type of operation, 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," a maritime analyst who declined to be named said.
The pirates have raked in millions of dollars in ransoms in recent years in what has become a highly organized, international criminal enterprise.
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 maritime security.
There is a risk that the pirates may step up hostage taking to discourage further military operations, Rory Lamrock, an intelligence analyst with security firm AKE, told Reuters.
"The concern is that pirates will simply relocate logistics bases further inland, possibly among coastal communities, to avoid EU airborne attacks," he said.
"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."
(Additional reporting by Mohamed Ahmed in Mogadishu, William Maclean and Jonathan Saul in London; Editing by David Clarke and Andrew Osborn)