UK to be part of international coalition to protect Red Sea ships from attack

It comes after oil giant BP paused tanker journeys over safety concerns after Iranian-backed Houthi militants in Yemen stepped up attacks on vessels.

Patrick Daly
Tuesday 19 December 2023 11:20 GMT
The MoD pointed to HMS Diamond’s deployment to the Middle East when asked about the UK’s involvement in the Red Sea alliance (LPhot Belinda Alker/MoD/Crown copyright)
The MoD pointed to HMS Diamond’s deployment to the Middle East when asked about the UK’s involvement in the Red Sea alliance (LPhot Belinda Alker/MoD/Crown copyright) (PA Media)

Britain is set to join an international coalition to protect ships sailing through the Red Sea after tankers came under attack from militants in Yemen.

The announcement comes after oil giant BP paused all of its tanker journeys over safety concerns after Iranian-backed Houthi soldiers stepped up attacks on vessels in the Red Sea in recent days.

US defence secretary Lloyd Austin said the UK was one of a host of countries that would be joining forces as part of the Washington-led alliance to ensure vessels could navigate safely.

It is understood the Royal Navy’s HMS Diamond, which was deployed to the Middle East last month and saw action in the Red Sea on the weekend, is likely to be part of the patrols.

Mr Austin said in a statement: “This is an international challenge that demands collective action.

“Therefore today I am announcing the establishment of Operation Prosperity Guardian, an important new multinational security initiative.”

As well as London, Bahrain, Canada, France, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Seychelles and Spain will join the US in the new mission, Mr Austin announced.

Many of those linking up with Washington are thought to already have a presence in the Middle East, where Israel is at war with the Palestinian militant group Hamas, the rulers of the Gaza Strip.

Ahead of the announcement, Downing Street said the UK Government was in talks with international partners about how it could “strengthen maritime security”.

The Houthi rebels are understood to be targeting ships using the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, with the pro-Hamas group seeking to disrupt ships set for Israel.

On Monday, BP said: “In light of the deteriorating security situation for shipping in the Red Sea, BP has decided to temporarily pause all transits through the Red Sea.

“We will keep this precautionary pause under ongoing review, subject to circumstances as they evolve in the region.”

A number of shipping firms, such as Danish company Maersk, had already paused container shipments through the area due to the surge in attacks.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s official spokesman said the Government was “providing security advice to the shipping sector as necessary” but that it was for individual companies to decide whether to continuing using the Red Sea route.

The No 10 official told reporters: “We are speaking to the sector, we’re speaking to our partners, both internationally and in the region about how we can further strengthen maritime security, particularly in the context of the recent attacks.

“You’ll understand I can’t get into the detail of what that will or will not entail.”

The UK has already bolstered its naval presence in the region, with the deployment of HMS Diamond.

On Saturday, it was revealed the Type 45 destroyer shot down a suspected attack drone which was targeting merchant shipping in the Red Sea.

The Ministry of Defence, when asked about what resources the UK was providing to the international shipping mission in the Middle East, pointed to HMS Diamond being sent to the region last month.

The shipping route is a key area for global trade, particularly for the transport of oil, grain and consumer goods from east Asia.

Guy Platten, secretary general of the International Chamber of Shipping, said a “large number of companies” were “actively considering rerouting” due to the unstable conditions in the region, with global supply chains likely to be hit with disruption as a result.

He said shipping lines were likely to have to take a detour of around 5,500 miles around the southern tip of Africa to avoid the trouble spot.

Mr Platten told BBC Radio 4’s PM programme: “It does add delay to the supply chain.

“You will see some implications of that as the weeks go on, as we did when the Ever Given ran aground in the Suez Canal in March 2021.”

He added: “I think there is every potential for it to be disruptive.

“This (situation) is due to security implications by the Houthis in the Red Sea but it has the same effect in that ships are going to have to divert elsewhere, so you will see this disruption.”

Oil and gas prices increased on Monday due to the potential disruption caused by shipping issues.

The price of a barrel of Brent crude oil was up by 3% to 78.88 US dollars (£62.33) as markets were closing in London.

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