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Maersk pauses Red Sea sailings after Houthi attack on container ship

Maersk pauses Red Sea sailings after Houthi attack on container ship
December 31, 2023

COPENHAGEN/DUBAI (Reuters) -- Iranian-backed Houthi militants attacked a Maersk container vessel with missiles and small boats, prompting the company to pause all sailing through the Red Sea for 48 hours, Maersk said on Sunday.

The crew of the Maersk Hangzhou was safe and there was no indication of fire onboard the vessel, which was fully maneuverable and continued its journey north to Port Suez, Maersk said.

The attack was the latest by Houthi militants in Yemen, who have been targeting vessels in the Red Sea to show their support for Palestinian Islamist group Hamas fighting Israel in Gaza.

The attacks have disrupted world trade, with major shipping companies taking the longer and costlier route around the Africa's Cape of Good Hope rather than through the Suez Canal.

The Red Sea is the entry point for ships using the Suez Canal, which handles about 12% of global trade and is vital for the movement of goods between Asia and Europe.

The U.S. launched Operation Prosperity Guardian on Dec. 19, saying more than 20 countries had agreed to participate in the efforts to safeguard ships in Red Sea waters near Yemen.

In response, Maersk said on Dec. 24 it would resume sailings through the Red Sea. However, attacks have continued, and U.S. allies have proven reluctant to commit to the coalition, with nearly half not declaring their presence publicly.

Maersk, one of the world's major cargo shippers, said on Sunday it would delay all transits through the area for 48 hours, after the Maersk Hangzhou was struck by a missile around 1730 GMT on Saturday 55 nautical miles southwest of Al Hodeidah, Yemen.

A U.S. warship shot down another two anti-ship ballistic missiles fired from Houthi-controlled areas in Yemen, according to the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM).

Later at around 0330 GMT on Sunday, the same ship was attacked by Houthi militants in four small boats. An attempt by the attackers to board the vessel was averted after its security team and helicopters from the USS Eisenhower and USS Gravely, responding to distress calls, returned fire, according to statements by Maersk and CENTCOM.

The helicopters sank three of the militant boats, with no survivors, while the fourth boat fled the area, CENTCOM said in the statement.

The Singapore-flagged Maersk Hangzhou, with capacity to carry 14,000 containers, was en route from Singapore.

British Foreign Secretary David Cameron said on Sunday that he had told Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian in a call that Iran should help stop the Houthi attacks in the Red Sea.

"I made clear that Iran shares responsibility for preventing these attacks, given their long-standing support to the Houthis," Cameron said in a post on social media site X, adding that the attacks "threaten innocent lives and the global economy."

The BIMCO shipping association condemned the attacks and thanked those states involved in repelling them.

"We are thankful to U.S., French and U.K. efforts so far and hope even more states will support the coalition with naval assets or other impactful means including diplomatic pressure on the Houthis and their sponsors," Jakob Larsen, BIMCO's head of maritime safety and security, told Reuters.