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Maersk pauses shipping through Red Sea after Houthi boats attack vessel

Maersk has imposed a 48-hour delay on its vessels moving through the Red Sea, following an attack on one of its merchant ships by Iranian-backed Houthi fighters based in Yemen.

Maersk pauses shipping through Red Sea after Houthi boats attack vessel
Maersk pauses shipping through Red Sea after Houthi boats attack vessel

The US military said its helicopters responded to distress calls from the vessel — the Maersk Hangzhou — on Sunday and sank three boats operated by the Houthis, killing those aboard. A fourth boat fled the area, it said.

The Danish company said in a statement that all of its crew members are safe, but it needs “time to investigate the details of the incident and assess the security situation further.”

As a result, it has “decided to delay all transits through the area for the next 48 hours,” Maersk said on Sunday.

The weekend attack took place after the Maersk Hangzhou passed through the Bab al-Mandab Strait at the southern entrance to the Red Sea, en route from Singapore to Port Suez, the company said.

The pause comes just a week after Maersk said that it would resume shipments in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden following the establishment of a new US-led military force to safeguard the area.

Some of the world’s biggest companies, including oil giant BP (BP), recently said they were suspending their operations in the Red Sea, also avoiding the crucial Suez Canal, following attacks on commercial ships by the Houthis, which the militants said were revenge against Israel for its military campaign against Hamas in Gaza.

Around 10% to 15% of global trade, and 30% of container trade, passes through the Suez Canal, which connects the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea.

The Maersk Hangzhou was first “hit by an unknown object,” but was able to continue moving as there was no fire on board, Maersk said. Then, four boats approached the ship and “engaged fire in an expected attempt to board the vessel,” it added.

“A helicopter was deployed from a nearby navy vessel, and in collaboration with the vessel’s security team, the boarding attempt was successfully repelled.”

The sinking of the Houthi boats marked the first time since tensions broke out earlier in 2023 that the United States has killed members of the Iranian-backed rebel group.

The Houthi movement, also known as Ansarallah (Supporters of God), is one side of the Yemeni civil war that has raged for nearly a decade.

The US has avoided directly striking the group inside Yemen as it seeks to avoid escalating the crisis further. But a National Security Council spokesman said Sunday that the US would continue acting in self-defense.

The US deployed warships to the Red Sea and last month launched Operation Prosperity Guardian, a multinational maritime coalition, to beef up security in the critical global shipping lane.

Some commercial ships were already being rerouted around the southern tip of Africa, raising concerns that a prolonged effective closure of the Suez Canal would increase freight costs and delivery times.

Maersk had earlier diverted its vessels away from the Red Sea and introduced new charges to transport goods along longer routes as a result of the disruption. But it said last Sunday that it would resume shipping in the area.

“As shared in our update on 29 December, Maersk Hangzhou was among the first vessels to go through the Red Sea again following confirmation that the multinational security initiatives… had been deployed in the area,” it said in its statement this week.

Other shipping lines, including Hapag-Lloyd, MSC Mediterranean Shipping Company and Evergreen continue to reroute their vessels around Africa.

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