Maersk diverts ships around Africa to avoid Red Sea security threat

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AP Møller-Maersk has said vessels due to sail through the Red Sea will be rerouted around Africa via the Cape of Good Hope because of the threat of attacks by Yemeni rebels, adding to the potential disruption of vital trade through the Suez Canal.

On Tuesday, Maersk, which operates the world’s second-largest container shipping fleet, said its vessels would be diverted because of the “highly escalated security situation”. The company had paused all vessels due to pass through the Bab-el-Mandeb strait last Friday because of security concerns.

“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. “This decision was taken to ensure the safety of our crews, vessels and customers’ cargo onboard.”

Iran-backed Houthi rebels have intensified their campaign against ships passing through the Red Sea, which leads to the Suez Canal, following the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war, with more than 10 attacks on ships in the area since then.

Most of the 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 also to 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.

The decision to divert ships comes as US defence secretary Lloyd Austin on Tuesday announced an expanded international task force to protect ships passing through the Red Sea, which would include the UK, Bahrain, Canada, France, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Seychelles and Spain. The group will conduct joint patrols in the southern Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.

“This is an international challenge that demands collective action,” he said.

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


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