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Tensions Spilling Over From Gaza Impact Shipping in the Red Sea

The tensions spilling over from the war in Gaza to merchant shipping in the Red Sea escalated on Saturday when Britain and the United States said their militaries had shot down more than a dozen attack drones.

The Houthis, an armed group that controls much of northern Yemen, have been staging drone and missile assaults on Israeli and American targets since the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attacks on Israel. They have said they intend to prevent Israeli ships from sailing the Red Sea until Israel stops its war on Hamas, which rules Gaza. Both the Houthis and Hamas, like Hezbollah in Lebanon, are backed by Iran.

The shipping industry was also bracing for potential economic fallout as the Red Sea, a vital sea lane, is increasingly drawn into the regional unrest. The U.S. Central Command said in a statement that an American guided missile destroyer, the U.S.S. Carney, “successfully engaged” 14 drones launched from Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen. It said the confrontation resulted in no injuries or damage to ships in the area.

Earlier in the day, Britain’s defense secretary, Grant Shapps, said the British warship HMS Diamond had shot down one suspected attack drone targeting merchant shipping in the Red Sea overnight.

“The recent spate of illegal attacks represent a direct threat to international commerce and maritime security,” he said in a statement. “The U.K. remains committed to repelling these attacks to protect the free flow of global trade.”

Also on Saturday, the Houthi militia claimed to have launched a number of attack drones toward the Israeli Red Sea port of Eilat. Nir Dinar, an Israeli military spokesman, said he could not confirm that claim.

The Egyptian state news media reported that its forces had shot down a drone off the coast of Dahab, a beach town on the Gulf of Aqaba roughly 90 miles south of Eilat. The report did not say where the drone had come from.

The Houthis have launched attacks on Eilat several times during the Gaza war, and the arrival of commercial ships in the city, a major port, has come to an almost complete halt.

This past week, the Houthis hit a Norwegian tanker bound for Italy with a cruise missile and attacked a ship operated by the Mediterranean Shipping Company, the world’s largest container shipping company, causing fire damage but injuring no crew.

The group’s fighters also hijacked another commercial vessel in November and are still holding 25 of its crew members. A Houthi spokesman, Yahya Sarea, said the group had carried out its most recent attacks in solidarity with the Palestinian people to protest the “killing, destruction and siege” in Gaza.

In recent weeks, the United States has been in discussions with its allies to establish a naval task force to protect maritime traffic through the region, which Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security adviser, has compared to similar missions off the coast of Somalia to protect vessels from pirates.

John F. Kirby, the White House national security spokesman, said on Friday that the United States was working with maritime forces to bolster security in the region.

But it is unclear how the task force might respond to future drone or missile attacks from the Houthis. The United States has identified potential targets in Yemen should the Biden administration order airstrikes, two officials said. But military officials said the White House appeared to be wary of military action for fear of setting off a broader regional war.

In recent days, the unrest in the region has led three major shipping companies, Hapag-Lloyd, Maersk, and Mediterranean Shipping, to temporarily stop sending vessels through the Red Sea, threatening to add costly weeks to the journey of any goods carried on their vessels.

“It’s very dangerous what the Houthis are doing,” said John Stawpert, a maritime security expert at the International Chamber of Shipping. “These are missiles and drone attacks, and they are a threat to human life.”

The escalating Houthi attacks have implications beyond the region because the Red Sea links Europe and Asia and is connected to the Mediterranean Sea through the Suez Canal, a linchpin of the global supply chain. The International Chamber of Shipping, a trade group, said on Friday that 12 percent of global trade passed through the Red Sea.

Two shipping companies, Hapag-Lloyd and Maersk, announced shipping suspensions on Friday — the same day that a Hapag-Lloyd vessel was attacked while sailing near Yemen’s coast, and a day after an attack on a Maersk vessel that its owner described as a “near miss.”

Maersk, based in Denmark, has not given a timeline for the suspension. The company said early Saturday that it had no further comment.

Nils Haupt, a spokesman for Hapag-Lloyd, based in Germany, said on Saturday that the company did not expect major disruptions because its shipping pause in the Red Sea was scheduled to last only until Monday. But he added that the company was deeply concerned about the Houthi attacks and that it expected “a major impact on shipping if this continues.”

Shipping industry groups are echoing the concerns.

The International Chamber of Shipping described recent Houthi attacks on seafarers and merchant ships as “extremely serious threat to international trade” in a statement on Friday. It added that some companies had already rerouted shipping around the Cape of Good Hope on Africa’s southern tip.

Mr. Stawpert said the financial impact of these disruptions was not yet clear, but that consumers should expect to see “a knock-on effect on the cost of goods,” because avoiding the Red Sea would add two to three weeks to any journey.

“Any increase in the sailing time of a ship will have a financial impact,” Mr. Stawpert said. “The other impact we have seen are insurance rates for shipping going through the Red Sea have risen.”

Two groups representing shipowners and seafarers in Europe also said on Friday that they were “deeply concerned by the recent surge in attacks” against commercial vessels in the region. The groups — the European Community Shipowners’ Associations and the European Transport Workers’ Federation — called for “immediate action to urgently address this alarming situation.”

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Nathan is an experienced journalist. He's covered a broad spectrum of topics, including politics, culture, and human interest stories, always aiming to engage and inform his audience. Nathan has a degree in Journalism and upholds the highest standards of integrity and accuracy in his work.

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