Somalia pirates: EU approves attacks on land bases
The European Union has agreed to expand its mission against Somali pirates by allowing military forces to attack land targets as well as those at sea.
In a two-year extension of its mission, EU defence ministers agreed warships could target boats and fuel dumps.
The BBC's security correspondent Frank Gardner says the move is a significant step-up in operations, but one that also risks escalation.
Up to 10 EU naval ships are currently on patrol off the Horn of Africa.
They have policed shipping routes and protected humanitarian aid since 2008. The extension means they will stay until at least December 2014.
An EU official said the new mandate would allow warships or helicopters to fire at fuel barrels, boats, trucks or other equipment on beaches, according to Agence France-Presse.
Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo told reporters: "The EU plan is to allow attacks on land installations when ships are assaulted at sea," adding that "much care" would be taken to avoid civilian deaths.
Rear Admiral Duncan Potts, the operation commander for the EU Naval Force in Somalia, said it had already made considerable progress targeting the pirates at sea.
"If you look at last year, 30 ships and up to 700 hostages were held - today that is eight [ships] and around 200 [hostages]," he told the BBC's 5Live.
"At sea we've had an effect on the pirates' ability to operate but we haven't changed the strategic conditions, which is why we want to target every stage of their operations."'Robust action'
A two-decade war has wrecked Somalia, leaving it without a proper government.
Taking the fight against Somali piracy to bases on land is a major step-up for EU operations. Until now, pirates have been able to operate from coastal bases in towns like Eyl, Haradhere and Hobyo with relative impunity, returning from lengthy raids at sea to enjoy the spoils back home, though many drown or return empty-handed.
Now, it seems, the paraphernalia of piracy will all become fair game, hitting the pirates where it hurts and trying to disrupt what an EU admiral described to me as "the pirates' business model".
But this new, aggressive policy comes with significant risks. Pirates who see their bases destroyed are likely to protest they were innocent fishermen. It's also possible that, over time, innocent Somali fishermen really will be hurt.
Either way, its likely to enrage the pirates who may be tempted to take out their frustration on the hapless merchant sailors they regularly kidnap for ransom.
The transitional government only controls the capital Mogadishu, while al-Shabab militants, who recently joined with al-Qaeda, hold large swathes of territory.
The EU says the main tasks of the mission are the protection of vessels of the World Food Programme delivering food aid to displaced people in Somalia, and the fight against piracy off the Somali coast.
"Today's important decision extends [Operation] Atalanta's mandate for two more years and allows it to take more robust action on the Somali coast," the EU's foreign policy head Catherine Ashton said in a statement.
The statement said the EU would be working with Somalia's transitional federal government and other Somali organisations to support their fight against piracy from the coastal area.
Brussels also said the Somali government had told the UN secretary general that it accepted its new offer of collaboration.
The statement also said "a budget of 14.9m euros (£12.4m; $19.7m) is provided for the common costs of the prolonged mandate".
In February world leaders agreed to boost support for measures to fight piracy, terrorism and political instability in Somalia, at a conference held in London.
The summit agreed a seven-point plan promising more humanitarian aid, support for African Union peacekeepers and better international co-ordination.
On Wednesday British woman Judith Tebbutt was freed by Somali pirates after being held hostage for more than six months.
The Times newspaper claims her family paid a ransom of $1.3m (£800,000), which was dropped from an aircraft.