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Red Sea crisis: Shipping firms suspend operations, divert vessels amid growing Houthi attacks

US said to weigh retaliatory strikes amid increasing drone attacks on commercial vessels along one of the world's largest shipping lanes

Red Sea crisis: Shipping firms suspend operations, divert vessels amid growing Houthi attacks
[Source photo: Chetan Jha/Press Insider]

Global shipping companies are rerouting voyages, and altogether suspending operations in some instances, as attacks on ships increase in the Red Sea, one of the world’s largest shipping lanes.

Last week, a slew of major global shipping companies announced the suspension of operations through the Red Sea strait after Yemeni rebel attacks in the zone that is vital for global trade.

Danish shipping firm Maersk, one of the world’s largest shipping lines by container capacity, said it was halting all voyages through the Red Sea following a spate of attacks from parts of Yemen under the control of the Houthis, a rebel group backed by Iran.

“We are deeply concerned about the highly escalated security situation in the southern Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. The recent attacks on commercial vessels in the area are alarming and pose a significant threat to the safety and security of seafarers,” Maersk said in a statement.

“Following the near-miss incident involving Maersk Gibraltar and yet another attack on a container vessel, we have instructed all Maersk vessels in the area bound to pass through the Bab al-Mandab Strait to pause their journey until further notice.”

Bab al-Mandab is a key trade chokepoint between the Persian Gulf and Europe. Some 12% of seaborne oil and 8% of liquefied natural gas passed through in early 2023, according to the US Energy Information Administration.

Italian-Swiss shipping firm Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC) said on Friday that its container ship MSC Palatium III came under attack while transiting the Red Sea.

“All crew are safe with no reported injuries, meanwhile the vessel suffered limited fire damage and has been taken out of service,” MSC said, adding that MSC ships will not transit the Suez Canal “until the Red Sea passage is safe.”

German transport company Hapag-Lloyd, which owns a ship that came under assault from the Houthis, joined Maersk in suspending operations, according to the BBC.

France’s CMA CGM Group, too, joined in suspending shipping operations through the region on Friday.

“The CMA CGM Group is deeply concerned about the recent attacks on commercial vessels. We have been taking prevention measures to ensure the safety of our vessels and their crews navigating these waters. The situation is further deteriorating and concern of safety is increasing,” CMA CGM said in a statement.

“We have decided to instruct all CMA CGM container ships in the area that are scheduled to pass through the Red Sea to reach safe areas and pause their journey in safe waters with immediate effect until further notice,” it added.

The Houthis have publicly stated their intention to target all vessels bound for Israel, regardless of their nationality, in a show of support for Hamas. They have also issued clear warnings to international shipping companies, urging them to avoid interactions with Israeli ports.

Maritime security experts in Yemen have cautioned that the escalating Houthi assaults pose a significant threat to global shipping traffic in the Red Sea and the Bab al-Mandab Strait, potentially sparking a broader regional conflict.

Meanwhile, the Suez Canal Authority (SCA) on Sunday said that 55 ships have rerouted via the Cape of Good Hope since 19 November amid attacks on ships in the Red Sea.

SCA chairman Osama Rabie said in a statement that 2,128 ships had crossed the waterway during the same period. “We are closely monitoring the impact of the current tensions in the Red Sea and studying their impact on navigation via the canal,” Rabie said.

US national security adviser Jake Sullivan, who was in the Middle East last week, expressed concerns about the Houthis jeopardizing navigation in the Red Sea.

“The US is working with the international community, with partners from the region and from all over the world to deal with this threat,” he had said.

Top officials in the Biden administration are evaluating retaliatory steps against the Yemeni Houthis following the group’s assaults on naval and commercial vessels in the Red Sea, Politico reported, citing two anonymous US officials aware of the plans.

Earlier this month, a US warship shot down three drones launched from Houthi-controlled territory in Yemen following an attack on three commercial vessels in the Red Sea.

In a separate incident prior to this attack, another US warship apprehended armed men who had hijacked an Israeli-affiliated tanker near Yemen’s coast.

Last month, the Houthis released video footage showing armed men descending from a helicopter to commandeer a cargo ship in the southern Red Sea.

Indian Navy on alert

The Indian Navy, meanwhile, is on alert in the Arabian Sea, where it last week responded to the hijacking of MV Ruen, a Malta-flagged vessel.

“Responding swiftly to the developing situation, the navy diverted its naval maritime patrol aircraft undertaking surveillance in the area and its warship on anti-piracy patrol in the Gulf of Aden to locate and assist MV Ruen. The aircraft flew over the hijacked vessel on early morning of 15 December, with aircraft continuously monitoring movement on the vessel,” which was heading towards the coast of Somalia, the Indian Navy said in a release.

Shipping Corp. of India Ltd (SCI), Essar Shipping Ltd and The Great Eastern Shipping Co. Ltd did not immediately respond to emailed queries.

Shares of Essar Shipping, SCI and The Great Eastern were up 9.9%, 0.06%, and 3.4% at 12.30pm in intraday trading on Monday.

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