DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – Somali pirates holding a hijacked ship off the coast of Somalia fired at a U.S. Navy helicopter as it made a surveillance flight over the vessel, the first such attack by pirates on an American military aircraft, the Navy said Thursday.
The helicopter, which is based on the USS Chancellorsville, was not hit and there were no injuries, the Navy said.
The copter was flying on Wednesday over a Taiwanese-flagged fishing vessel, the Win Far, which pirates seized along with its 30-member crew in April and were holding south of the Somali port town of Hobyo.
The helicopter was about 3,000 yards away from the ship when the pirates opened fire with “a large caliber weapon,” the Navy said in a statement. The helicopter did not return fire, it said.
Since seizing the Win Far in the Gulf of Aden, the pirates have used the vessel as a base for attacking other commercial ships, including the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama. Four pirates seized the Maersk Alabama in April, taking its captain Richard Phillips hostage. He was held for five days in a sweltering lifeboat off the coast until U.S. Navy snipers shot three of his captors dead.
Lt. Nathan Christensen, a Bahrain-based spokesman for the Navy’s 5th Fleet told the Associated Press that Wednesday’s shooting marks the first time pirates shot at U.S. Navy helicopters conducting daily surveillance flights over areas where pirates anchor hijacked vessels and await ransom.
Christensen said four other merchant ships and 105 crewmembers are currently being held by pirates near the Win Far. They are anchored along Somalia’s coast, between port towns of Hobyo and Eyl, Christensen said in a phone interview on Thursday.
Piracy has increased in the Gulf of Aden — a crucial shipping route in and out of the Suez Canal — and elsewhere off the coast of Somalia, fueling a more than doubling of pirate attacks in the first half of 2009, according to an international maritime watchdog.
Somalia has had no effective central government since 1991, and the country’s interim government is embroiled in a struggle with Islamist extremists with suspected al-Qaida links.