LONDON // Somali pirates have been using Yemen's island of Socotra, 240 kilometres east of the Horn of Africa as a refuelling hub, enabling their attack craft to stay restocked for longer periods at sea and pose a greater hazard to shipping, maritime sources say.
Despite an international naval presence in the region, seaborne gangs have been exploiting political turmoil in Yemen to pick up fuel, and possibly other supplies including food, sources told Reuters.
"Socotra has been used for months if not longer," said Michael Frodl, with C-LEVEL maritime risk consultancy and an adviser to Lloyd's of London underwriters, citing intelligence reports.
He said the island is the most important refuelling hub for hijacked merchant vessels that the pirates use as motherships, "especially those operating between the Gulf of Aden and India's western waters, mainly off Oman and increasingly closer to the Strait of Hormuz."
Mr Frodl said a hijacked merchant vessel "has a voracious thirst for fuel and needs a very well stocked refuelling station."
A Yemen government official said authorities about a month ago had captured 20 people believed to be pirates on the island and handed them over to authorities in the city of al Mukalla on the mainland.
A source said separately the 20 people had been on a regular commercial ship, but added that 16 Somali pirates were taken into custody in recent days and were being detained on Socotra.
"There was a lot of piracy north of Socotra during the north-east monsoon and it is likely they have been using the island," the source said. The International Maritime Bureau (IMB) watchdog said the pirate support systems had to be stopped quickly.
The IMB director, Pottengal Mukundan, said: "Socotra is strategically located because it is right up there against the Gulf of Aden and also along the eastern seaboard of Yemen. If it is true that the pirates are using Socotra, then it is an extremely disturbing development."
Somali gangs are becoming increasingly violent and are able to stay out at sea for long periods and in all weather conditions using captured merchant vessels as mother ships. Their hijackings are costing world trade billions of dollars a year. The group of four islands in the isolated Socotra archipelago, the largest of which is also called Socotra, are due east of the Horn of Africa in the Arabian Sea, and have been administered from Yemen for much of the past two centuries.
J. Peter Pham, of the US think tank the Atlantic Council, said: "A credible amount of evidence has emerged in recent years that Somali pirates have certainly taken advantage of jurisdictional issues to operate in and out of the Socotra archipelago with at least the tacit connivance of at least some Yemeni authorities."
Pirates conducted several attacks in May in the Arabian Sea and some strikes in June. Maritime officials say the islands will become more difficult to reach in smaller ships until October because of wind, sea and swell conditions.
Yemen's military is believed to have a base on Socotra, maritime sources said. "If the military wanted to supply mother ships with fuel from Socotra, they could. Corruption in Yemen is rife," another maritime source said.
Nato said it had ships in the Horn of Africa and Gulf of Aden since March 2009 and the presence of Nato warships and other nations' navies had resulted in a significant reduction in pirate attacks in the Gulf of Aden over the past two years.
"We are not complacent and understand there is still much work to be done," a Nato spokeswoman said.