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Maersk Line Ltd. Quits Red Sea After Attack on U.S.-Flag Ships

Maersk Line Limited ship
File image courtesy MLL

Published Jan 24, 2024 12:56 PM by The Maritime Executive

On Wednesday, A.P. Moller-Maersk said that two of its U.S.-flag ships had detected nearby explosions while transiting Bab el-Mandeb, and had turned back from the strait on the U.S. Navy's instructions. The company says its U.S. ships will now also suspend Red Sea operations. 

Yemen's Houthi rebels have been attacking shipping in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden for months. Recently, the group has pledged to target American shipping in retaliation for U.S. military counterstrikes on Houthi missile-launch units. 

The Maersk Line Limited (MLL) vessels Maersk Detroit (84,626 DWT) and the Maersk Chesapeake (35,119 dwt) were under way in the strait when the crew saw explosions nearby. The vessels had a U.S. Navy escort at the time and were instructed to reverse course away from the strait. 

"The US Navy accompaniment also intercepted multiple projectiles," Maersk told AFP in a statement. "The crew, ship, and cargo are safe and unharmed. The US Navy has turned both ships around and is escorting them back to the Gulf of Aden."

AIS signals show that both vessels had departed Oman. The Maersk Chesapeake is now showing that it is returning to Oman. U.S. Central Command also confirmed the attacks reporting the USS Gravely downed two anti-ship ballistic missiles fired by the Houthi in addition to the third which impacted the sea.

“Following the escalation of risk, MLL is suspending transits in the region until further notice,” a Maersk Line spokesperson told The Maritime Executive in a statement after today’s incident. “The safety of our crews is of utmost importance… We are developing network contingencies….”

The UK Maritime Trade Organizations reported an incident 50 nautical miles south of Al Mukha, which would put it in the area of the Bab el-Mandeb. Details were sketchy but appears to be the same incident with the master of the unnamed vessel reporting an explosion approximately 100 meters off the starboard side of the ship.

An estimated 70-90 percent of international container traffic has abandoned the Red Sea-Suez route because of the risk of Houthi attacks, even though the route is the fastest seaborne connection between Asia and Europe. 

MLL, a Maersk subsidiary that operates U.S.-flag, U.S.-crewed ships under U.S. government subsidy, was continuing to use the faster Red Sea-Suez route. A large share of MLL cargoes are government-owned goods and equipment, including military cargoes.  

Like most other major liners, Danish parent company A.P. Moller-Maersk has been diverting all of its foreign-flag, foreign-crewed ships away from the Red Sea, and it is exclusively using the Cape of Good Hope route instead. 

The new attack on U.S.-flag shipping appears to answer a critique of the legal basis for U.S. counterstrikes on Houthi positions. Three U.S.-flagged / U.S.-crewed vessels have now been attacked or threatened by Houthi rebels, bolstering a sovereign "self-defense" argument for protecting U.S.-flag ships - not just foreign ships - transiting Bab el-Mandeb.