The EU will expand its seagoing anti-piracy mission to include for the first time the Somali coast itself and waterways inside the country, the bloc said Friday.
The expansion of the operation appears to herald a significant shift in strategy from a mission that has concentrated until now on stopping pirates at sea.
Although European Union foreign ministers meeting Friday in Brussels did not specify what they meant by "coastal territory and internal waters," bloc officials have said the new tactics could include using warships or their helicopters to target pirate boats moored along the shoreline, as well as land vehicles used by the pirates.
The foreign ministers also said the operation, which started in 2008, will be extended until at least the end of 2014. A statement said Somalia's transitional government has accepted the EU's offer for greater collaboration in the operation.
"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," the statement said.
The EU didn't provide details about the areas that will now be open to its anti-piracy mission for the first time, but 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 only took 6 ships. Officials say this trend has continued this year.
The EU keeps 5-10 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.
A NATO official said Friday the alliance also was revising its rules of engagement "with a view to reinforcing them." But "actions on land are not part of this reinforcement," the official said on condition of anonymity because of NATO rules.
The EU naval force is responsible for the protection of World Food Program ships carrying humanitarian aid for Somalia, and the logistic support vessels of the African Union troops conducting operations there. It also monitors fishing activity off the coast of Somalia, a country that has been without a functioning government since 1991, when dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was overthrown.
The Atalanta force has just been joined by French amphibious assault ship Dixmude. The 21,000-ton ship, the largest to serve with the EU mission, is capable of acting as a mobile operating base for 16 helicopters, adding to the speed of response and reach of the naval force.
"The extension of the mandate until the end of 2014 confirms the EU's commitment to fighting piracy off the Horn of Africa," said Rear Adm. Duncan Potts, who commands the EU operation. "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."