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Somali fishermen beg end to anti-piracy air strikes

By AFP

MOGADISHU (AFP) - Somali fisherman pleaded Friday for international navies protecting shipping to halt air strikes on coastal villages, after the EU Naval Force struck a pirate base for the first time.

An attack helicopter staged a nighttime raid on the Somali coastline Tuesday, the first since the European Union authorised such strikes, destroying several small boats that the force said were part of pirate operations.

But fishermen on the impoverished coast said that their boats had also been destroyed, and that they feared being caught up in further attacks aimed to damage pirate operations.

"The pirates cannot be easily identified, as they mingle with the fishermen -- the boats are the same and the people look alike unless they are armed," said Mohamed Hassan, a local fisherman in the Harardhere region.

"The fishermen are also victims -- some of the boats destroyed by the international forces belonged to local fishermen, and we are very much worried that fishermen will die in such operations," he added.

NATO and European Union warships have battled pirates at sea since 2008, but the EU decided to step up the fight in March by authorising strikes on assets stored on land.

The attacks Tuesday marked the first time an international naval force patrolling the pirate-infested Indian Ocean waters have struck on land after years of trying to prevent attacks at sea.

However, fisherman Kahin Abdurahman said that forces should instead send ground troops capable of distinguishing between pirates and civilians.

"The international forces should stop flying helicopters and firing missiles from the sky," Abdurahman said.

"If they need to, then their operation must distinguish between local fishermen and pirates, so they must deploy foot soldiers on the ground."

The EU naval force said no Somalis were injured in Tuesday's strike, and that the attacks were focused on "known pirate supplies" -- prompting a furious response from pirates.

"If they continue attacking Somali coastal villages, then there will be terrible consequences," said Abdi Yare, a pirate chief in the notorious pirate base of Hobyo, on the central Somali coast.

"The so-called anti-piracy forces are now engaging in a very dangerous part of their mission."

The pirates are believed to be holding dozens of ships and hundreds of sailors for ransom, and have also branched out into land-based kidnapping.

Nine EU warships are currently deployed by France, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Italy and The Netherlands.

Several other nations, including Russia and China, also provide protection for their ships as they pass through the busy shipping route through the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean.

Piracy has flourished off war-torn Somalia, outwitting international efforts -- including constant patrols by warships and tough sentencing of the pirates they capture.

In January, a daring US-led commando raid rescued two aid workers -- an American woman and a Danish man -- held hostage in central Somalia.

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