For the third time this week, a commercial vessel came under Iranian-backed Houthi missile attack near the Bab al-Mandab Strait Thursday, a U.S. military official told The War Zone. Now that ship’s owner is calling for “political action” to stop these incidents.
“A ballistic missile was fired from Houthi-controlled territory in Yemen at the Maersk Gibraltar,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss operational details. The missile missed and there was no damage to the ship or crew and no U.S. vessels in the area, said the official. The United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations said that the vessel reported an explosion 50 meters off the port quarter after an entity calling itself the Yemeni Navy ordered it to proceed to Yemen.
"Maersk is aware of the ongoing incident relating to Maersk Gibraltar while the vessel was enroute from Salalah, Oman to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia," Mikkel Linnet, a spokesman for Maersk, said in a statement to The War Zone. “The crew and vessel is reported safe. At this time, we are still working to establish the facts of the incident. The safety of our crew and vessel is our top priority and all possible security measures are being taken to ensure we remove them from harm’s way."
Maersk is calling for outside help to stop these continuing attacks, Linnet said.
“The recent attacks on commercial vessels in the Bab al-Mandab Strait are extremely concerning," he said. "The current situation puts seafarer lives at risk and is unsustainable for global trade. As it cannot be solved by the global shipping industry on its own, we call on political action to ensure a swift de-escalation.”
When pressed, Linnet would not elaborate on what kind of political action he was seeking, but it is notable that one of the world’s largest shipping companies is calling for such assistance.
Today's Houthi attack on commercial shipping is just the latest in an ongoing series of such incidents. The Houthis have repeatedly attacked shipping in the Red Sea and launched missiles and drones at Israel. There have also been several instances where U.S. Navy vessels have also had to shoot down Houthi drones and missiles.
Houthi spokesman Yayha Sare'e earlier this week warned that the rebels will continue attacking shipping in the Red Sea, a vow the group has lived up to three times this week so far.
Yesterday, the Marshall Islands-flagged oil tanker M/T Ardmore Encounter was fired upon by two Houthi anti-ship ballistic missiles that missed, U.S. officials told us yesterday. In that incident, the Arleigh Burke class guided-missile destroyer USS Mason downed a Houthi drone coming toward it after responding to a distress call from the Ardmore Encounter. It was the fourth time the Mason engaged with the Houthis since the start of the Israel-Hamas war.
On Monday, the Norwegian-owned chemical tanker M/T Strinda was set ablaze after being hit by a Houthi land-based cruise missile 60 miles north of the Bab al-Mandab Strait, U.S. officials told us.
The Bab al-Mandab Strait is an extremely narrow passage into the Red Sea from the Gulf of Aden, a little more than 12 miles across at the shortest distance between Houthi-controlled territory in Yemen and the Djibouti coastline to the west. Some 230,000 ships a year traverse it, Reuters reported, adding that around 7.8 million barrels per day of crude and fuel shipments transited the strait in the first 11 months of 2023, according to oil analytics firm Vortexa. On average, Vortexa tracked 27 tankers carrying crude or fuel each day in 2023.
In addition to the U.S. Navy's Mason and Arleigh Burke class guided-missile destroyer USS Carney -which has also been involved in a number of incidents involving the Houthis - the French and U.K. are also providing warships to the southern Red Sea.
The Type 45 destroyer HMS Diamond will join a multinational group there to provide presence and reassurance, and to ensure that international trade continues to flow, Admiral Sir Tony Radakin said, in a speech to the Royal United Services Institute in London.
The naval presence, he added, is designed to send a message “that it is unacceptable for merchant ships to be attacked,” according to USNI News.
The Diamond joins a group that includes US, French, and other naval ships. It was currently in the Eastern Mediterranean region.
As we reported earlier this week, the FREMM Frigate Languedoc, patrolling off the coast of Yemen, shot down a drone threatening a Norwegian-flagged chemical tanker.
After repeated Houthi attacks on shipping in the Red Sea and Bab al-Mandab, the U.S. began talking about creating an international task force to address the problem. While there is no specific information provided about when it will launch or who will be part of it, it will be in addition to the existing Task Force 153. That's an international effort focusing "on international maritime security and capacity building efforts in the Red Sea, Bab al-Mandeb and Gulf of Aden."
On Tuesday, Air Force Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon's top spokesman, told reporters that the U.S. continues to discuss the creation of an international task force to provide protection to shipping in the region.
In response to those discussions, Iran's Defense Minister Mohammad Reza Ashtiani on Thursday issued a veiled warning, Reuters reported, citing official Iranian media.
"If they make such an irrational move, they will be faced with extraordinary problems," Ashtiani told the official Iranian Student News Agency (ISNA) in comments it published on Thursday. "Nobody can make a move in a region where we have predominance."
Ashtiani did not specify what measures Iran was prepared to take in response to the setting up of a U.S.-backed Red Sea task force.
In November, the International Maritime Security Construct, a 12-nation organization providing "reassurance to merchant shipping in the Middle East region through the contribution of a multinational force of ships, personnel and advanced capabilities," issued a warning to shippers about the Strait. It suggesting among other things they should travel at night whenever possible to avoid being identified and create maximum distance from Yemeni waters.
Whether other shippers join Maersk's call for action, or whether it gains any traction with governments that can take action in the region remains to be seen. Regardless, additional pressure from a large shipping company like Maersk underscores the need for something to be done.
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