06 April 2018

Oil Tanker Entering Red Sea Hit by Missile Strike as Yemeni Conflict Escalates  

Condemnation by US Government and Houthi Forces Alike

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Shipping News Feature YEMEN – Pots continued to call kettles black this week as a missile strike by Houthi forces damaged a VLCC as she passed northward through the Bab al-Mandeb Strait from the Gulf of Aden into the Red Sea en route to Ain Sukhna in Egypt. The oil tanker is the 303,000 dwt Abqaiq carrying around two million tonnes of crude and the missile caused damage to the ship's hull above the waterline but no casualties were reported.

The incident is the latest in a war which has both sides seemingly implacably heading for a maritime disaster. A Houthi statement said the attack was a reprisal for an air raid by Saudi Arabian forces earlier in the week which killed at least twelve people, most of them children, a fact confirmed by UNICEF when visiting the site in the port city of Al Hudaydah.

Whilst there has been no denial of this charge from the Saudi’s, one of hundreds of airstrikes launched against the Houthi’s in the past three years, the tanker attack was quick to bring criticism from the White House, with press secretary Sarah Sanders saying the US was:

“…very concerned about the Houthis’ latest attempt to escalate the war in Yemen, this time by attacking a commercial vessel while it transited one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, the Bab al-Mandab, in international waters. A significant portion of global trade moves through the Bab al-Mandab every day, including key energy and food supplies. In January, the Houthis publicly threatened to attack international commercial maritime traffic in the Red Sea, and launched this attack near the vital port of Hudaydah.

“Yesterday’s attack coincides with the UN’s High-Level Pledging Event in Geneva, where the Saudi-led Coalition contributed $930 million. In contrast, the Iranian regime continues to perpetuate the conflict and provide destabilising weapons to the Houthis. We call on the Houthis to cease further escalation and demonstrate their commitment to a peace process by engaging in constructive dialogue.”

The Saudi’s have requested the UN Security Council to assist in the protection of the waters off the Yemeni coast as the war continues. Both the US and UK have supported the cause of the coalition forces with military aid after the Houthi, and forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, took control of Yemen’s capital, Sanaa and a large part of the country in September 2014. Since the coalition attacked in March 2015 to reinstate what it considers the rightful government around 6,000 people are known to have died and thousands more injured by both sides.

Studies by Human Rights Watch have classified attacks by both sets of combatants as war crimes with cluster munitions used by the coalition and land mines by the Houthi’s. The Abqaiq, owned by Bahri, the National Shipping Company of Saudi Arabia, is just one of many similar potential targets transiting the region daily.

Unless there is a cooling of the conflict or a meaningful resolution it is likely we will see a major maritime incident off the Yemeni coast with the potential for devastating oil pollution in an area blessed with such fragile environments as those of the nearby Farasan Island Marine Sanctuary.

Photo: The bow of the Abqaiq with (inset) the hole made by the missile in her upper hull.

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