LONDON - The British commander heading the European Union's naval task force is squaring up to a new wave of increasingly young Somali pirates as the hijacking season returns.

Rear Admiral Peter Hudson is trying to combat the gangs whose high seas piracy threatens both international trade and the survival of millions in their homeland who depend on food aid.

The monsoon is over and the pirates are back.

Prowling the Indian Ocean and the strategically vital Gulf of Aden shipping route, they racked up nine hijackings and 17 unsuccessful attacks in March.

At the Northwood Headquarters complex, razor-wired off from the leafy suburbs of northwest London, Hudson and his 120-strong team, drawn from 16 countries, are trying to stay ahead of the game.

"We need to be adaptive, agile and try and be a bit more proactive than perhaps we were 12 months ago," he says in his spartan bunker office, which boasts an EU flag and maps of the seas pinned to the walls.

"They are fearless individuals. They are still prepared to take this risk and increasingly they are young chaps - early twenties, late teens, occasionally as young as 14 or 15."

Recent moves include the pirates swarming in clusters and the EU naval force trying to catch them before they reach the high seas.

In March, EU Navfor collared 18 pirate gangs, destroyed 22 skiffs and apprehended some 131 pirates for prosecution.

But there are eight vessels and 157 hostages now in the hands of Somali pirates.

Operating from the 1600km-long Somali coast, gangs of pirates are sailing up to 1000km out to sea, with a mother ship towing tiny attack skiffs.

They risk their lives in the hunt for ships, cargo, oil, crew and the ransom fortunes they can command.

"Somalia is still pretty broken. Life opportunities are limited in that area so the allure of large ransoms from large ships is still very high," Hudson said.

Around 20percent of global trade passes through the narrow Gulf of Aden, where EU Navfor's Operation Atalanta has been quelling Somali piracy.

But the gangs are steadily switching their attention to the Indian Ocean, seizing larger Yemeni, Pakistani or Indian cargo dhows and using them as a hub to launch attacks much further off the Somali coast. - Sapa-AFP

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