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U.S. Helicopters Exchange Fire with Houthi Militants, Disrupting Shipping Routes

In a dramatic escalation of tensions in one of the busiest maritime routes in the world, U.S. Navy helicopters engaged in combat with Houthi militants in the Red Sea on Sunday, according to U.S. Central Command. This is a regional fallout from Israel’s war in the Gaza Strip.

Sunday Morning Attack

Gdansk, Poland – August 21, 2013: MS Maersk Mc-Kinney Moller Triple E-class, former worlds largest container ship in port of Gdansk city — Photo by fotokon

The incident happened on Sunday morning when four small boats carrying Houthi militants approached the Danish-owned Maersk Hangzhou, flying the Singaporean flag, and engaged in gunfire with the onboard security team, according to a Centcom statement.

American Helicopters Sank Houthi Boats

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According to the report, three of the four Houthi boats were sunk and their crew members were killed when American helicopters responding to a distress call from the ship returned fire, which was opened by the militants.

Read More: US Responds to Attack on Ship in Red Sea

No Casualties on American End

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The statement also stated that no U.S. personnel were hurt and that the helicopters, which were sent from the USS Gravely and Eisenhower, did not sustain damage. A Houthi military spokesman said 10 members of the movement were dead or missing.

Why This Strip is Important

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On Sunday, John Kirby, the National Security Council’s strategic communications coordinator, stated on ABC’s “Good Morning America” that “it is one of the most important, most vital commercial waterways in the world, and we have an obligation with our allies and partners to keep the flow of commerce.”

Houthi Attack in Response To Israel – Palestine Conflict

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Since October, the Houthis, a militant organization with Iranian support that rules northern Yemen, have been attacking commercial ships. According to the movement, these attacks are retaliation for Israel’s military campaign in Gaza. They have declared that they will keep attacking ships that are either owned by Israel or en route to Israel until the siege of Gaza is lifted.

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Iranian Support

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Their campaign has been carried out concurrently with attacks on Israel or its closest military and political ally, the United States, by other militant groups with Iranian support in Lebanon and Iraq.

However, even as the Biden administration led the charge in declaring the creation of a maritime coalition to oppose the militants in Yemen, the Houthis abstained from directly confronting American forces.

First Direct Confrontation

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It appears that the gunfight that occurred on Sunday represents the first direct encounter between American and Houthi forces since October 7, when Hamas militants invaded Israel, killing 1,200 people and capturing 240 others.

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

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

Hours After Previous Missile Attack

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According to Centcom, the firefight on Sunday occurred just hours after another missile damaged the Maersk Hangzhou in the Red Sea. The Gravely intercepted two anti-ship ballistic missiles fired from Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen on Saturday night in retaliation to that attack, according to Centcom, although no casualties were reported.

Maersk Delays Its Shipments

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Following the second attack, Maersk announced via email that it was postponing all local transits for 48 hours. The Maersk Hangzhou’s crew was reportedly safe, and the ship was reported to be in transit from Singapore to Port Suez, Egypt, at the time of the attacks.

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Maersk Had Just Resumed Transits Three Days Back

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Three days after announcing the return of transits through the region, Maersk decided to delay delivery on Sunday, citing the security protection provided by the naval coalition led by the United States.

Other Firms Keeping a Close Eye

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Now, other businesses are keeping a close eye on Maersk to see how it develops. According to John Kartsonas, managing partner of supply chain and shipping research firm Breakwave Advisors, other companies in the industry will likely follow Maersk’s lead if it decides to prolong its current pause beyond a few days.

Following the Houthi attacks, a large number of the enormous ships that pass through the Suez Canal to convey around 12% of global trade have shifted their routes and are now headed around southern Africa.

Extremely High Traffic Zone

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According to supply chain analysis firm Everstream Analytics, as many as 12 out of every 14 container ships and a significant portion of oil and gas tankers destined for the vital route between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea—which cuts travel times between Asian and European waters as well as between Asia and large swaths of the Atlantic by thousands of miles—are instead sailing south.

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High Risk To Shipping Companies

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In spite of US efforts to protect the waterway, the incident on Sunday highlighted the risks to large shipping companies, whose operations have a knock-on effect on the world economy.

Shipping Rates Already Expected To Rise

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According to analysts, shipping rates are expected to rise globally in 2024 for a variety of reasons unrelated to the Middle East. The cost of a container from Asia to Mediterranean ports has already increased, according to Margaret Kidd, program director and instructional associate professor of supply chain and logistics technology at the University of Houston, from roughly $1,500 per container in October to $2,500 currently.

Devastating Blow

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According to Kidd, the risks are growing at a time when shipping is beginning to recover from the difficulties caused by the pandemic and when the cost of shipping goods around the world has increased.

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