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Houthi rebel attacks may force global shipping companies to take the long way round Africa

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It was a midsea moment of pure terror for the All-Indian crew of the MT Strinda. Their ship had just been fired upon by Yemen’s Houthi rebels.

Now the Houthis were demanding that the Norwegian ship alter course towards a rebel-held territory where the crew would face captivity and possibly death.

The Strinda is one of scores of ships which have been fired on as they sail through the Red Sea in recent weeks. This has forced three of the world’s top five shipping companies to order their ships to either stay away from the Red Sea or, if they are already there, to halt wherever they are.

India’s particularly affected by the high seas attacks because the journey time between this country and Europe will become two weeks longer if ships have to sail round Africa via the Cape of Good Hope. Equally, if not more importantly, Indian officers and sailors man many merchant marine ships around the world. The Houthi’s have stepped up attacks in recent weeks and they claim this is in support of Palestinians.

A dramatic audio recording has been released of an exchange between the Houthis and The Strinda. The ship was attacked in the strait at the entrance to the Red Sea.

“Alter your course with your maximum speed. Otherwise you will be attacked,” says a Houthi man. A clearly Indian voice on board the ship replies: “We are having some issue with the engine. We are trying to fix it up.” The vessel was hit by a missile which caused a fire on board. But it was able to limp into a safe port, helped by the presence of a French naval vessel.

Maersk, the Danish shipping company, the world’s largest, and German container line Hapag-Lloyd have suspended journeys through a key Red Sea strait following a string of Houthi drone and missile attacks that are disrupting international commerce. US naval ships have shot down about 20 Houthi missiles in the last few days.

“We have instructed all Maersk vessels in the (Red Sea) area bound to pass through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait to pause their journey until further notice,” a company official said.

Risk assessment firm Vessel Protect calls the Houthi attacks “significant impediment” to commercial shipping in the region. A huge amount of Europe’s energy supplies, like oil and diesel fuel, along with products like palm oil and grain and many of the world’s manufactured products the Bab el-Mandeb Strait.

The trip from the Persian Gulf to Rotterdam port takes nearly 18 days via the Suez and more than 31 days via the Cape of Good Hope.

Global shipping service Xeneta’s Chief Analyst, Peter Sand, said, “All ships transiting the Suez Canal must sail through the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden and the Houthi militia has made clear that any vessel is a target. I do not believe the Suez Canal will close. However, if there are further significant escalations then we cannot rule it out, even if it is just for a few days.”

Sand noted the closure of Suez after the container ship Ever Given’s grounding in 2021 plunged supply chains into chaos that took months to rectify. Now the backdrop is worse: global supply chains are already tightly stretched, with unprecedented delays at the Panama Canal due to a drought and low water levels, he said.

Global shipping has become a target during the war between Israel and Hamas, which like the Houthis is backed by Iran. But many of the merchant vessels attacked by the Houthis who claimed they were owned by Israeli companies or were heading to Israel had only a remote or no connection with Israel.

Some Israeli-linked vessels have already begun taking the longer route around Africa and the Cape of Good Hope, making the journey three weeks longer. The single biggest immediate impact of the Houthi escalation has been insurance costs which have doubled for ships moving through the Red Sea, insurers say. For Israeli-owned vessels, insurance bills have risen by 250 per cent.

The shipping companies believe one solution would be a reported US plan for a multinational task force to start operating in the Red Sea to deter the Houthis from further attacks. While the task force wouldn’t escort ships in the Red Sea, the presence of more navy ships would make it easier to respond to threats. The US has let it be known it may counter-attack the Houthi bases. But it is treading carefully because there’s a risk that such an attack might trigger a larger conflict with Iran which backs the Houthis.

The Houthis who rule much of Yemen and are fighting the country’s Saudi-backed rulers says their attacks are a show of support for the Palestinians and have vowed to continue them until Israel stops its offensive on the Gaza Strip.

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