JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- With an estimated 300 hostages currently in the hands of Somali pirates, the first attack on a pirate land base by the European Union's anti-piracy force Tuesday was a delicate one: In all, several speedboats were destroyed as well as fuel and ammunition stores, alliance officials said.
No lives were lost in the attack on the base north of Haradheere, a major pirate stronghold, and no Somalis were injured, the EU said.
“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 commander of the naval force Somalia, Rear Adm. Duncan Potts.
"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,” he said.
Potts added that no European forces landed on Somali soil during the operation, which he said was approved by Somalia's U.N.-backed transitional federal government.
The attack marks a significant shift in anti-piracy operations and was designed to deny the pirates a haven on land, according to the naval force.
Somali pirates operating from the chaotic, lawless state have seized dozens of ships and hundreds of crew members in recent years, demanding multimillion-dollar ransoms to release vessels. They have attacked ships almost 2,000 miles from the shores of Somalia.
According to a report last year by the Colorado-based One Earth Future Foundation, Somali pirates attacked 237 ships in 2011 and hijacked 28. It estimated that Somali piracy cost $7 billion last year, including increased security, fuel and insurance, 80% of which was borne by the shipping industry.
The EU anti-piracy operation, established in 2008, involves about 1,500 military personnel, nine ships and five maritime patrol planes, policing an area seven times the size of France off the Horn of Africa. The area including the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden and western Indian Ocean includes some of the world's most important shipping routes.
One of the force's main roles is to protect vessels carrying World Food Program humanitarian aid.
NATO and other countries also have ships patrolling the area.
The attack, carried out early Tuesday, involved helicopters and maritime aircraft, according to a statement by the naval force.
Bile Hussein, a pirate, said the attack blew up a key supply center, the Associated Press reported. He said nine speedboats were destroyed. Pirates often use speedboats launched from "mother ships" that may resemble fishing vessels to attack ships off Somalia.
"They destroyed our equipment to ashes," Hussein said. "It was a key supplies center for us. The fuel contributed to the flames and destruction. Nothing was spared."
The EU naval force announced in March that it would begin attacking pirates on land.
"The focused, precise and proportionate action was conducted from the air and all forces returned safely to EU warships on completion," a naval force statement said Tuesday. "Whilst assessment is ongoing, surveillance of the area during the action indicates that no Somalis were injured ashore as a result of EU action."
The latest hijacking by Somali pirates came last week, when a Greek-owned tanker, the Smyrni, was seized off the coast of Oman. The tanker was carrying a cargo of 135,000 tons of oil. It was the first successful hijacking of an oil tanker this year.
Somali pirates are currently holding 17 vessels.
Ships traveling in waters off Somalia often carry armed security guards, and use other deterrents to keep pirates from boarding, including razor wire.
-- Robyn Dixon
Photo: In 2010, a pirate keeps watch on the coastline near Hobyo in northeastern Somalia. A European naval force attacked supplies of Somali pirates on Tuesday. Credit: Mohamed Dahir / AFP/Getty Images