The European Union has agreed to expand its mission against Somali pirates and will allow military forces to attack land targets in Somalia, in a significant escalation of operations in the Horn of Africa.
Until now the operation had concentrated on stopping the pirates at sea. The move will prove controversial if it leads to an escalation of hostilities.
The operation, which started in 2008, will be extended until at least the end of 2014, and EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels said that for the first time it would cover Somali "coastal territory and internal waters". Ministers agreed that EU warships could target boats and fuel dumps.
The long coastline of war-ravaged Somalia provides a perfect haven for pirate gangs preying on shipping off the East African coast.
Pirate attacks on international merchant shipping in the Indian Ocean and Red Sea have been in steady decline in the past 12 months. During the first quarter of 2011, pirates captured 19 ships, while in the rest of the year they took only six. Officials say this trend has continued this year.
The EU keeps between five and 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 have dispatched naval vessels to patrol the region.
Somalia's transitional government had accepted the EU's offer of greater collaboration in the operation, the EU said. "Today's decision will enable Operation Atalanta forces to work directly with the transitional federal government and other Somali entities to support their fight against piracy in the coastal areas," an EU statement said.
Although the ministers did not specify what they meant by "coastal territory and internal waters", EU officials have said this could include warships or their helicopters targeting pirate boats moored along the shoreline, or vehicles used by the pirates.
Rear Admiral Duncan Potts, who commands the EU operation, told Associated Press: "Piracy has caused so much misery to the Somali people and to the crews of ships transiting the area and it is right that we continue to move forward in our efforts."
The African Union has a 17,700-strong military mission in Somalia, made up of troops from Kenya, Uganda and Burundi, who are fighting al-Shabab militants. The force pushed insurgents out of the capital, Mogadishu, last year.
The freed British hostage Judith Tebbutt, 56, who was held captive in Somalia for more than six months before being freed earlier this week, has flown home from Kenya with her son, Oliver. Her husband, David, was was killed by a single gunshot to the chest as he tried to shield his wife when a kidnap gang, believed to be Somalis, reached their beachside hut in a remote resort in Kiwayu, northern Kenya.