Taking the battle to pirates

Somali bases, once safe, are now targets

By Walt Braun

Until this week, the international struggle against piracy in the seas off the Horn of Africa has involved mostly defensive efforts — warding off pirates who attempt to seize commercial vessels.

That changed Tuesday when the European Union Naval Force attacked a pirate base in Somalia. The EU Naval Force, which is separate from NATO efforts and is charged with protecting ships carrying humanitarian aid from the World Food Program to Somalia, used attack helicopters to destroy a base in a village about 10 miles north of a Haradheere. There were no deaths, but speedboats, fuel and arms were destroyed. Three of the speedboats — the pirates’ choice of vessels for harassing commercial and cruise ships — were on standby for another hijacking.

Perhaps the most dramatic incident before this week’s attack involved the rescue of Richard Phillips, captain of the Maersk Alabama, in April 2009. That drama, in which Navy SEAL snipers aboard the USS Bainbridge shot and killed three of the pirates holding Capt. Phillips hostage in a lifeboat, followed the pirates’ seizure of the Maersk Alabama in the Indian Ocean.

U.S. and NATO ships have patrolled the waters of Somalia for a number of years in response to the increase of ship seizures by pirates based in Somalia, a country that has been without an effective government for more than 20 years.

Just two months ago, NATO’s members agreed to extend through 2014 what they call Ocean Shield, the alliance’s counter-piracy operation.  In addition, Russia, China, India and several other countries have warships patrolling Indian Ocean shipping lanes favored by pirates.

Getting to the pirates’ bases has always been a different matter; they’ve operated with impunity along Somalia’s long coastline. The EU isn’t just fighting Somali piracy, it’s among organizations trying to train Somali troops troops to help stabilize Somalia and set the stage for a functioning central government. Michael Mann, spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, said, “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.”

One essential step is putting the pirates out of business — or coming as close to it as possible. That means more attacks on pirates on land as well as at sea.

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