US-led coalition of global powers warns Houthis to stop ‘illegal attacks’ or ‘bear the consequences’

The governments of the United States, Australia, Bahrain, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, New Zealand, Singapore, and the United Kingdom issued a joint statement warning the Houthis against further attacks in the Red Sea.

Illustration; Image credit: MSC

The statement is being issued on the heels of the latest use of anti-ship ballistic missiles against commercial vessels, threatening the freedom of navigation.

Ongoing Houthi attacks in the Red Sea are illegal, unacceptable, and profoundly destabilizing. There is no lawful justification for intentionally targeting civilian shipping and naval vessels. Attacks on vessels, including commercial vessels, using unmanned aerial vehicles, small boats, and missiles, including the first use of anti-ship ballistic missiles against such vessels, are a direct threat to the freedom of navigation that serves as the bedrock of global trade in one of the world’s most critical waterways,” the statement reads.

“These attacks threaten innocent lives from all over the world and constitute a significant international problem that demands collective action.  Nearly 15 percent of global seaborne trade passes through the Red Sea, including 8 percent of global grain trade, 12 percent of seaborne-traded oil and 8 percent of the world’s liquefied natural gas trade. International shipping companies continue to reroute their vessels around the Cape of Good Hope, adding significant cost and weeks of delay to the delivery of goods, and ultimately jeopardizing the movement of critical food, fuel, and humanitarian assistance throughout the world.”

“Let our message now be clear: we call for the immediate end of these illegal attacks and release of unlawfully detained vessels and crews.  The Houthis will bear the responsibility of the consequences should they continue to threaten lives, the global economy, and free flow of commerce in the region’s critical waterways. We remain committed to the international rules-based order and are determined to hold malign actors accountable for unlawful seizures and attacks.”

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According to U.S. Central Command, on January 2. Houthi forces fired two anti-ship ballistic missiles from Houthi-controlled areas in Yemen into the Southern Red Sea.

“Multiple commercial ships in the area reported the impact of the ASBMs into the surrounding water though none have reported any damage. These illegal actions endangered the lives of dozens of innocent mariners and continue to disrupt the free flow of international commerce. This is the 24th attack against merchant shipping in the Southern Red Sea since Nov. 19,” the statement from U.S. Central Command reads.

The Yemeni Armed Forces issued a statement stating that the operation was targeting CMA CGM Tage containership, which was reportedly ‘heading toward the ports of occupied Palestine’.

“The targeting operation came after the ship’s crew refused to respond to the calls of the Yemeni Naval Forces, including the fiery warning messages. The Yemeni Armed Forces affirm their continuation in preventing “Israeli” ships or those heading to the ports of occupied Palestine from navigating in the Red and Arabian Seas until the introduction of food and medicine needed by our brothers in the Gaza Strip,” the Yemeni Armed Forces said in a statement on X social media platform, formerly known as Twitter.

Yemeni Houthi Forces have been targeting ‘all Israeli ships or those heading to the ports of occupied Palestine‘ as a means of expressing solidarity with the current situation in the Gaza Strip, demanding humanitarian aid and medicine be allowed into the war-stricken area. However, the strategy seems to have expanded to other commercial vessels, even though companies claim their vessels were heading to other destinations.

The Yemeni Armed Forces affirm the continuation of navigation in the Red and Arabian Seas to all destinations around the world, except to the ports of occupied Palestine. The Yemeni Armed Forces also confirm that any American aggression will not pass without response or punishment,” the statement from the Yemeni Armed Forces further reads.

“It should be noted that CMA CGM Tage is operating on the Bosphorus Express (BEX) service between China/Singapore to Alexandria, then Beirut and Tripoli in Lebanon, Istanbul in Turkey, and Constanta in Romania – i.e. no calls in Israel on the usual routing. This is an Ocean Alliance service,” Lars Jensen, an expert container shipping analyst said in a comment on the most recent targeting of CMA CGM Tage.

“Curiously, CMA CGM Tage had the AIS tracker on during the transit in the risk area which is unlike CMA CGM’s usual way of operating when their vessels are transiting the area. (…) Vessel movements indicate that CMA CGM continues to use a Red Sea routing.”

One of the most recent attacks that shook the media took place over the weekend as Maersk’s containership Maersk Hangzhou was targeted by a missile and small boat swarm by Yemen’s Houthi Group who were aiming to board the vessel.

The hijacking was thwarted by Maersk’s private security team onboard the vessel and U.S. Navy helicopters.

The U.S. Navy helicopters returned fire in self-defense, sinking three of the four small boats, and killing the crews. The fourth boat fled the area,” the U.S. Central Command said.

Maersk announced subsequently that it would suspend the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden transits until further notice, and reroute its ships around the Cape of Good Hope. Liner majors like CMA CGM, Hapag Lloyd, and MSC have also announced the redirection of their vessels around the Cape for safety reasons.

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The World Shipping Council, the International Chamber of Shipping, and BIMCO expressed gratitude to the coalition of nations that have jointly condemned the ongoing attacks on ships in the Red Sea and the detention of vessels and crews there.

“The shipping associations call on all nations and international organizations to protect seafarers, international trade in the Red Sea, and to support the welfare of the global commons by bringing all pressure to bear on the aggressors so that these intolerable attacks cease with immediate effect,” the organizations said.

The shipping industry has been calling for more decisive action in the region to deter the attacks as rerouting of vessels around Cape of Good Hope comes with a significant commercial bill for companies, as well as longer trips and even greater emissions.

Vessels opting for the longer route face higher fuel expenses, extended voyage durations, and additional maintenance requirements. Furthermore, freight rates are experiencing fluctuations as companies adjust pricing models to account for extended voyage durations and increased operational expenses.

Reports indicate that the rerouting of vessels has resulted in a drop in commercial marine traffic along the Suez Canal by a third when compared to last year’s figures.

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Speaking yesterday at the U.N. Security Council briefing Arsenio Dominguez, the newly appointed Secretary-General of the International Maritime Organization (IMO), condemned the continuing attacks in the Red Sea and the stability of the region amid the Israel/Palestine crisis.

Dominguez noted that the initial targets were ships linked to Israel, however, recent information indicates that ‘this is not the case at the moment.’

As further stressed, around 18 shipping companies have decided to reroute their vessels around South Africa to avoid the attacks.

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That being said, there is a fear that a more decisive naval response in the region could spread the conflict across the Middle East. These fears are further fuelled by the recent drone strikes in Lebanon, which have resulted in the killing of Hamas Deputy leader al-Arouri and six others.

According to Al Jazeera, Israel has not taken responsibility for these attacks as the exchange of fire between Hezbollah and Israeli forces continues along the Israel-Lebanon border.

The risk of regional spillover of the Israeli-Palestine conflict remains high, Khaled Khiari, a top United Nations official told the Security Council on December 29, as delegates underscored that a full-blown conflict between Israel and Hizbullah would be catastrophic for Lebanon and the wider region.

Meanwhile, Israel continues to pound Gaza with air strikes as part of its efforts to ‘eliminate Hamas’ despite international calls, including that from the U.N. for a humanitarian ceasefire.

The attacks have claimed the lives of over 22,000 Palestinians, since October 7, 2023, according to Gaza’s health ministry, with over 55,000 injured. Two-thirds of those killed in Israel’s bombardments are reported to be women and children.