Yemen island keeps pirates a step ahead
THE remote island of Socotra off Yemen is being used as a refuelling hub by Somali pirates, allowing them to stay at sea longer to menace shipping in the Persian Gulf, it has emerged.
Despite an international naval presence, seaborne gangs from the Horn of Africa have been exploiting political turmoil in Yemen to pick up fuel and supplies on the island.
"Socotra has been used for months if not longer," said Michael Frodl, a maritime risk consultant and adviser to Lloyd's of London underwriters.
Citing intelligence reports, he added: "It is perhaps the most important refuelling hub for hijacked merchant vessels used as motherships, especially those operating between the Gulf of Aden and India's western waters, mainly off Oman and increasingly closer to the (strategically important] Strait of Hormuz.
"A hijacked merchant vessel, unlike a hijacked dhow (Arab sail boat], has a voracious thirst for fuel and needs a very well stocked refuelling station."
A Somali source claimed 16 pirates had been taken into custody in recent days 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. "Pirates use the beaches on the mainland not too far from Mukalla to collect fuel, and presumably other equipment."
International Maritime Bureau director Pottengal Mukundan said: "If it is true pirates are using Socotra, then it is an extremely disturbing development requiring urgent investigation."
Somali pirates make millions of pounds in ransoms and are able to stay at sea for long periods and in all weather using captured merchant vessels as motherships. Their attacks are estimated to cost world trade billions of pounds a year. Socotra is the largest of an archipelago of four islands, east of Somalia in the Arabian Sea, held by Yemen. The Strait of Hormuz is the access point to the Gulf of Persia, through which oil tankers sail.
"Socotra has been a favourite stomping ground for pirates for centuries as both Marco Polo and the great 14th century Islamic scholar and traveller Ibn Battuta attest," said Peter Pham, with US think tank, the Atlantic Council.
"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."
A maritime security source said there were transactions taking place between dhows in the Socotra archipelago as well.
He said: "In addition to fuel, these exchanges involve arms, most of which are then shipped to Somalia for distribution to pirates."
Yemen's military is believed to have a base on Socotra. But corruption is rife and it is thought unlikely it is prepared to take on the pirates.Yemen has been paralysed by six months of protests against president Ali Abdullah Saleh's three-decade rule. He is now in Saudi Arabia for treatment after narrowly surviving an assassination attempt. Militants with suspected links to al-Qaeda now control two of Yemen's cities.
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