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U.S. firefight with Houthi gunmen heightens shipping risk in Red Sea


Dec 31, 2023


U.S. Navy helicopters exchanged fire with Houthi militants from Yemen in the Red Sea on Sunday, U.S. Central Command said, in a marked escalation of tensions in one of the world’s busiest maritime routes that is part of the regional spillover from Israel’s war in the Gaza Strip.

The incident unfolded Sunday morning, when Houthi militants, in four small boats, approached the Singapore-flagged, Danish-owned Maersk Hanghzou and exchanged fire with a security team onboard, a Centcom statement said. After the militants fired on U.S. helicopters that answered a distress call from the ship, the helicopters returned fire, sinking three of the four Houthi boats and killing their crew members, it said.

The helicopters, dispatched from the USS Eisenhower and USS Gravely, did not sustain damage, it added, and no U.S. personnel were injured. A Houthi military spokesman said 10 members of the movement were dead or missing.

Who are the Houthis and why are they attacking ships in the Red Sea?

The Houthis, an Iranian-backed militant group that controls northern Yemen, have been attacking commercial ships since October, in what the movement has said is retaliatory action for Israel’s military offensive in Gaza. They have said that their maritime attacks — on Israeli-owned ships, or vessels headed for Israel — will continue until the siege on Gaza is lifted.

Their campaign has coincided with strikes by other Iran-backed militant groups, in Lebanon and Iraq, targeting Israel or its closest military and political ally, the United States.

But the Houthis had refrained from directly confronting U.S. forces, even as the Biden administration took the lead in announcing the formation of a maritime coalition to confront the Yemeni militants. Sunday’s firefight appeared to be the first direct engagement between the U.S. and Houthi forces since Oct. 7, when Hamas militants crossed into Israel, killing 1,200 people and seizing 240 hostages.

A Houthi military statement on Sunday evening announced “the martyrdom and loss of 10 members of our naval forces as a result of the American aggression.”

“The American enemy,” the statement added, “bears the consequences of the crime and its repercussions.”

Sunday’s firefight came hours after another missile struck the Maersk Hanghzou in the Red Sea, according to Centcom. While responding to that attack, which took place Saturday night, the Gravely shot down two anti-ship ballistic missiles fired from Houthi-controlled areas in Yemen, Centcom said, adding that no injuries were reported.

Maersk said in an emailed statement after the second attack that it was delaying all transits in the area for 48 hours. It added that the Maersk Hangzhou had been transiting from Singapore to Egypt’s Port Suez when the attacks happened and that its crew was reported safe.

Maersk’s decision to delay shipping Sunday came three days after it announced the resumption of transits through the area, citing the security protection offered by the U.S.-led naval coalition.

U.S. seeking partners to safeguard ships after Red Sea attacks

Other companies are now watching closely to see how Maersk proceeds. John Kartsonas, managing partner at Breakwave Advisors, a research firm focused on supply chains and shipping, said that if Maersk decides to extend its current pause beyond a couple of days, others in the industry would probably follow.

In the wake of the Houthi attacks, many of the massive ships that carry some 12 percent of all world trade through the Suez Canal have changed course, set to travel the long way around southern Africa instead.

As many as 12 out of every 14 container ships and a large share of oil and gas tankers bound for the key route between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea — which shortens the trip between Asian and European waters, and between Asia and swaths of the Atlantic, by thousands of miles — are instead heading south, Everstream Analytics, which analyzes supply chains, said in December.

The incident Sunday underscored the risks to major shipping firms, whose operations have a rippling effect on the global economy, despite U.S. efforts to safeguard the waterway.

“This is definitely an escalation that will change things,” said Robert Khachatryan, CEO of Freight Right Global Logistics in Los Angeles.

“There are a lot of vessels going through the Red Sea and the Suez Canal,” he said. “The military escorting each and every one of them is just not going to happen. And even if they are being escorted, they can still be shot at with missiles from inland.”

Analysts say shipping rates were already on track to soar worldwide in 2024, for reasons that aren’t all related to the Middle East. Rates from Asia to Mediterranean ports have already jumped from about $1,500 per container in October to $2,500 per container now, according to Margaret Kidd, program director and instructional associate professor for Supply Chain & Logistics at the University of Houston.

The risks, Kidd said, are intensifying at a time when shipping was recovering from the challenges of the pandemic, when costs of moving goods around the planet surged.

The Houthi attacks have buoyed the reputation of the militant movement at home in Yemen and around the Middle East, amid widespread revulsion at Israel’s offensive, which has killed nearly 22,000 Palestinians in Gaza, according to the health ministry there.

U.S. ship shoots down drones in Red Sea, Central Command says

The Houthi attacks have posed a quandary for the Biden administration, in part because Saudi Arabia, a close U.S. partner, is trying to conclude a peace deal with the Houthis, seeking to formally end the kingdom’s military intervention in a long civil war in Yemen. The escalation of hostilities between the U.S. and the Houthis could upset those efforts.

The Houthis “know the Americans don’t want to escalate,” because of the Saudi-Yemeni negotiations, said Mohammed Basha, a senior Middle East analyst at Navanti, a risk-assessment group. “They are in the sweet spot.”

The movement, whose antipathy to Israel and the United States had been part of its ideology for decades, could decide to step up its confrontation with the U.S. after Sunday’s events, he added, including by targeting U.S. naval ships, like a destroyer.

The White House has also faced pressure, from Israel and U.S. lawmakers, to more forcefully address the Red Sea threat from the Houthis.

Rep. Michael R. Turner (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week” that the Biden administration had been “very timid in responding to escalation by Iran.”

“The administration continues to not respond to the Houthi escalation in the area,” he said. The White House was “going to have to look at operations into Yemen where the capabilities are resonant, where Iran continues to reload them as they attack commercial shipping areas and put at risk U.S. military,” he added.

There was no sign Sunday that Israel’s military operations in Gaza — the stated reason for the Houthi attacks — were anywhere near their end. Early Sunday afternoon, Gaza’s health ministry announced that Israeli attacks had killed 150 people over the previous 24 hours, bringing the total death toll in Gaza since Oct. 7 to 21,822.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Saturday that the war in Gaza “will continue for many more months” — echoing comments made last week by the Israel Defense Forces’ chief of staff — until “absolute victory” has been achieved.

A member of his government, Bezalel Smotrich, the far-right finance minister, said in an interview Sunday that Israel should “encourage immigration” of Palestinians in Gaza, in comments that added to fears among Palestinians that Israel intends their forced displacement from the enclave.

“The whole conversation about what will happen after the war will be different if there are 100 or 200 thousand Arabs in Gaza rather than 2 million,” he said, in an interview with Israel’s army radio.

Fahim reported from Istanbul, Sands from London, and Pietsch and Halper from Washington. Ali Al-Mujahed in Sana’a, Yemen, and Pradnya Joshi in Washington contributed to this report.


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