Container ships abandon Red Sea as allies scramble to fend off attacks

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Container shipowners increasingly abandoned one of the world’s busiest trading routes on Tuesday, with many of the world’s largest cargo vessels diverting to avoid the Red Sea amid mounting attacks from Iranian-backed rebels in the region.

AP Møller-Maersk, which operates the world’s second-largest container shipping fleet, became the latest to reroute its vessels around Africa via the Cape of Good Hope because of the “highly escalated security situation”.

“The attacks we have seen on commercial vessels in the area are alarming and pose a significant threat to the safety and security of seafarers,” the company said in a statement on Tuesday. “This decision was taken to ensure the safety of our crews, vessels and customers’ cargo onboard.”

Data compiled by MariTrace, a ship-tracking service, showed that as of Tuesday evening, only 210 ships were traversing the Red Sea, the route to and from the Suez Canal, one of the biggest changes in international trading routes since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine nearly two years ago. By comparison, there were about 330 vessels traversing the region last month.

The shifts came as Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen intensified their campaign against ships passing through the Red Sea’s Bab-el-Mandeb strait, a narrow waterway at the sea’s southern mouth that is within easy reach of Yemen-based missiles and drones.

Houthi leaders have said their campaign is in response to Israel’s offensive against Hamas, which is also backed by Iran. There have been more than 10 attacks on ships in the area since the conflict began, and the US navy has reported thwarting at least as many drone strikes.

A US-led group of Nato and regional allies have scrambled to provide naval protection to commercial shipping, with Lloyd Austin, the US defence secretary, announcing an agreement to expand a naval task force deployed to the Red Sea.

Austin on Tuesday held a video conference with nations participating in the mission, dubbed Operation Prosperity Guardian, as well as other allies, in which he warned the threat to the global economy would continue unless more countries joined the effort.

“He reiterated that the international community is faced with an unprecedented global challenge that demands collective action,” the Pentagon said after the video conference.

Most of the Houthi attacks have been on vessels with ties to Israel, including several with ownership links to the Ofer family, who are among the world’s most powerful shipping dynasties, according to maritime intelligence reviewed by the Financial Times.

Maersk’s decision coincides with similar moves by other shipping groups. Taiwan-based Evergreen Marine said this week it had “decided to temporarily stop accepting Israeli cargo with immediate effect”, and instructed its container ships to “suspend navigation through the Red Sea until further notice”.

German company Hapag-Lloyd diverted all ships on Monday to go via the Cape of Good Hope, MSC decided on Friday to reroute some of its services and Marseille-based CMA CGM is taking similar action.

CMA CGM said it had rerouted some vessels at present sailing to and from the US, North Europe and Asia or the Indian subcontinent to travel via the southern tip of Africa, and instructed others to reach safe areas and pause their journeys until further notice.

Wallenius Wilhelmsen said on Tuesday that it expected a decision to reroute vessels around Africa to add between one to two weeks to voyage durations.

The attacks in the area risk disrupting global supply chains that depend on the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. The waterway accounts for 30 per cent of all container ship traffic and is a vital conduit for crude oil shipments.

Retailers have also started warning of supply chain disruptions that could result from the vessel diversions. Ikea, the world’s largest furniture retailer, said that the situation “will result in delays and may cause availability constraints for certain Ikea products”.

Michael Aldwell, executive vice-president of Swiss logistics group Kuehne+Nagel said about 19,000 ships navigated through the Suez Canal each year, typically taking 30 to 40 days to complete an Asia-Europe voyage. “Choosing this alternative route from Asia to Europe may extend the journey by three to four weeks,” he added.

Maersk said that, as of Monday, it had about 20 vessels paused, half of which were waiting east of the Gulf of Aden and the rest waiting south or north of the Suez Canal. BP became the first oil major to pause all shipments through the area on Monday.

Trafigura, one of the world’s largest commodities traders, said on Friday it was “taking additional precautions” for its owned and chartered vessels.

Three liquefied natural gas cargoes, chartered by commodity trader Gunvor and US LNG producer Cheniere, appear to also have diverted away from the Red Sea, according to ship-tracking data from energy consultancy ICIS.

One vessel chartered by Gunvor loaded with LNG from the US that was headed to Asia passed through the Suez Canal and into the Red Sea but turned back and re-entered the canal, according to the ICIS data. Gunvor and Cheniere declined to comment.

Additional reporting by Sarah White in Paris, Chan Ho-him in Hong Kong and Peggy Hollinger and George Steer in London

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