From Jonathan Saul, Reuters:  Somali pirates have been using Yemen’s remote Horn of Africa island of Socotra as a refueling 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 was privy to.

“It is perhaps the most important refueling 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 Strait of Hormuz.”

“A hijacked merchant vessel, unlike a hijacked dhow, has a voracious thirst for fuel and needs a very well stocked refueling station,” Frodl said. . . .

Somali gangs, who are making millions of dollars in ransoms, 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. The crisis is costing world trade billions of dollars a year.

The group of four islands in the isolated archipelago, the largest of which is Socotra, are located due east of the Horn of Africa in the Arabian Sea, and have been administered from Yemen for much of the last two centuries.

“Socotra has been a favorite stomping ground for pirates for centuries as both Marco Polo and the great 14th century Islamic scholar and traveler Ibn Battuta attest,” said J. Peter Pham, with U.S. think tank the Atlantic Council. . . .

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.