European forces strike Somali pirate lair

BRUSSELS — The European Union naval force patrolling the Indian Ocean on Tuesday carried out its first air strikes against pirate targets on shore, with a pirate reporting that the raid destroyed speed boats, fuel depots and an arms store.

Bile Hussein, a pirate commander, said Tuesday the attack on Handulle village in the Mudug region of Somalia’s central coastline will cause a setback to pirate operations. The village lies about 18 kilometers (11 miles) north of Haradheere town, a key pirate lair. There were no reports of deaths in the attack.

Maritime aircraft and attack helicopters took part in the attacks early in the morning on the mainland, an EU spokesman said.

The EU is the main donor to the Somali transitional government. It is also trains Somali army troops, and is reinforcing the navies of five neighboring countries to enable them to counter piracy themselves. The long coastline of war-ravaged Somalia provides a perfect haven for pirate gangs preying on shipping off the East African coast.

“This action against piracy is part of a comprehensive EU approach to the crisis in Somalia, where we support a lasting political solution on land,” said Michael Mann, spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.

Since December 2008, the EU has kept 5-10 warships off the Horn of Africa in an operation known as Atalanta. NATO has a similar anti-piracy flotilla known as Ocean Shield, and other countries — including the United States, India, China, Russia, and Malaysia — also have dispatched naval vessels to patrol the region.

The EU naval force is responsible for the protection of World Food Program ships carrying humanitarian aid for Somalia, and the logistic support vessels of the African Union troops conducting operations there. It also monitors fishing activity off the coast of Somalia, which has been without a functioning government since 1991, when dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was overthrown.

In March, the EU adopted a more robust mandate for its naval force, allowing it for the first time to mount strikes against pirate targets on Somalia’s “coastal territory and internal waters.” At the time, officials said the new tactics could include using warships or their helicopters to target pirate boats moored along the shoreline, as well as land vehicles or fuel tanks used by the pirates.

The EU did not say which member nation’s forces carried out Monday’s raid.

But two months ago, the Atalanta force was joined by French amphibious assault ship Dixmude. The 21,000-ton ship, the largest to serve with the EU mission, is capable of acting as a mobile operating base for 16 choppers — including Tigre helicopter gunships — significantly adding to the reach of the naval force.

“Today’s action is … in line with the new mandate,” Mann said. “The EU will continue to remain active in this field.”

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