Maersk says will resume Red Sea shipping as US-led coalition counters Houthi attacks

Shipper announces move after being assured multi-national Operation Prosperity Guardian has deployed to protect maritime commerce passing through Gulf of Aden to Suez Canal

Illustrative -- The 'Vilnia Maersk' container vessel is unloaded at the 'Jade Weserport' container terminal in Wilhelmshaven, Germany, November 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)
Illustrative -- The 'Vilnia Maersk' container vessel is unloaded at the 'Jade Weserport' container terminal in Wilhelmshaven, Germany, November 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)

FRANKFURT, Germany — Shipping firm Maersk said that it’s preparing to allow vessels to resume sailing through the Red Sea, thanks to the start of a US-led multinational naval operation to protect shipping from attacks by Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Houthi attacks have led to a major disruption of shipping through the Suez Canal and the Red Sea, one of the most important arteries for trade in oil, natural gas, grain, and consumer goods between Europe and Asia.

Maersk said in a statement Sunday that “we have received confirmation that the previously announced multi-national security initiative Operation Prosperity Guardian (OPG) has now been set up and deployed to allow maritime commerce to pass through the Red Sea-Gulf of Aden and once again return to using the Suez Canal as a gateway between Asia and Europe.”

The company said it was working on plans for the first vessels to make the journey “and for this to happen as soon as operationally possible.”

The Houthis are Iranian-backed rebels who seized Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, in 2014, launching a grinding war against a Saudi-led coalition seeking to restore the government. The Houthis have sporadically targeted ships in the region, but the attacks have increased since the start of the Israel-Hamas war on October 7. War erupted after 3,000 Hamas-led terrorists burst through the Gaza border and massacred 1,200 people in southern Israel that day — most of them civilians slaughtered in their homes, communities and at a music festival — and seized 240 hostages. Israel has vowed to destroy Hamas’s military and governance capabilities.

The rebels initially threatened to attack any vessel they believe is either going to or coming from Israel. That has escalated to apparently any vessel, with container ships and oil tankers flagged to countries like Norway and Liberia being attacked or drawing missile fire.

Yemenis in Houthi-controlled territory brandishing their guns chant slogans during a march in solidarity with the people of Gaza, in the capital Sanaa on December 15, 2023. (MOHAMMED HUWAIS / AFP)

Major shipping companies, including Denmark’s A.P Moller-Maersk — which accounts for 15 percent of global container freight — have been avoiding the Red Sea and sending their ships around Africa and the Cape of Good Hope. That added what analysts say could be a week to two weeks of voyages. The disruption also hiked fuel and insurance costs.

Italian-Swiss giant Mediterranean Shipping Company, France’s CMA CGM, Germany’s Hapag-Lloyd, Belgium’s Euronav, and oil giant BP have all stopped using the Red Sea until further notice. Taiwan shipping firm Evergreen also said it was suspending its Israeli cargo shipments with immediate effect and Frontline, one of the world’s largest tanker companies, said it was rerouting ships and would “only allow new business” that could be routed via South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope.

On Saturday, a US warship shot down four incoming drones originating from Houthi-controlled areas, and a Norwegian-flagged chemicals and oil tanker reported a near miss of an attack drone, while an India-flagged tanker was hit with no injuries reported, the US Central Command said Sunday on X, formerly Twitter. The incidents represented the 14th and 15th attacks on commercial shipping by the Houthis since October 17.

The Biden administration said Friday that Iran has been “deeply involved” in the planning of attacks by Houthis against commercial vessels in the Red Sea.

Citing newly declassified American intelligence, White House National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said in a statement that Iran is providing weapons, funding, training, and “tactical intelligence” to enable the strikes along the critical sea corridor.

Iran, which has long backed the Yemeni rebels, has provided unmanned aerial systems, cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles to the Houthis, including those used in recent strikes on commercial and military vessels and attempted attacks on Israel, according to the US assessment.

A picture of the oil tanker Chem Pluto as it appears on the website of the Port of Hamburg, Germany, on December 23, 2023. (Courtesy of the Port of Hamburg)

Tehran on Monday denied responsibility for another drone strike that damaged a Liberian-flagged ship off the Indian coast, calling the accusations “worthless.” No group claimed responsibility for the attack on the Chem Pluto, which caused a fire onboard that was later extinguished without any casualties among the crew. Like Washington, Jerusalem believes Tehran was directly behind the attack, according to Hebrew media Saturday.

The task force announced last week by US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin initially included Britain, Bahrain, Canada, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Seychelles and Spain. Greece has since said it will send a warship to join the coalition and Australia has said it will send 11 military personnel.

Several other countries have also agreed to be involved in the operation but prefer not to be publicly named, a US defense official said last week on the condition of anonymity to discuss additional details of the new mission that have not been publicly announced.

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