Shipping chiefs told UK ‘won’t stand by’ while Red Sea attacks continue

The UK “won’t stand by” while international shipping is under attack, the Government vowed as Iran-backed Houthi rebels said they would continue targeting vessels – including those from Britain.

Transport Secretary Mark Harper held crisis talks with the shipping industry to say the UK will not allow international maritime trade to be “held to ransom”.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the situation remained “concerning” as attacks persisted despite RAF airstrikes on Houthi positions.

The UK joined the US in carrying out strikes against the Houthis in Yemen last week, but ships have continued to be targeted along the vital Red Sea and Gulf of Aden trade routes.

Shipping lines and oil giants have diverted vessels away from the Red Sea and Suez Canal, but the alternative route around southern African adds time and costs, which could hamper efforts to tackle inflation.

Mr Harper said he met shipping leaders “to give reassurance that we won’t stand by while merchant ships and seafarers are attacked and international maritime trade is held to ransom”.

The US military confirmed on Thursday that it had fired another wave of ship and submarine-launched missile strikes against Houthi-controlled sites.

It marks the fourth time in recent days that it has directly targeted the group in Yemen as violence that ignited in the wake of the Israel-Hamas war continues to spill over in the Middle East.

US President Joe Biden said the strikes would continue, but acknowledged they had not yet stopped the Houthi attacks.

The UK Maritime Trade Operations, which acts as a link between the Royal Navy and shipping, said it had received a report on Thursday about an attack 85 nautical miles south-east of Ash Shihr, Yemen, involving four drones flying close to a ship, with one hitting the water “in close proximity to the vessel”.

Another incident was reported 115 nautical miles south-east of Aden, Yemen, with drones reported close to a merchant vessel and an “explosion in the water” approximately 30 metres away from it, although the ship and crew were safe.

The Houthi rebels, who support Hamas in the Palestinian group’s war against Israel, claim they have targeted ships with links to Tel Aviv, but vessels without obvious connections have also been struck.

Rebel supreme leader Abdel Malek al-Houthi, in his first comments since allied airstrikes started, said Western military action does “not scare us” as he vowed to continue targeting ships linked to Israel, as well as vessels with British and American ties.

Earlier in the day, the Prime Minister told reporters: “The rise in attacks on commercial shipping is both illegal and causing enormous disruption to the global economy and putting innocent lives at risk.

India Yemen Rebel Attack
Shipping freight vessels in the Red Sea have come under attack from Houthi rebels (Indian Navy via AP)

“It was right that we took action to protect both interests and lives.

“And together with allies, we have been very clear in our condemnation of their behaviour.

“We will continue to urge them to desist from carrying out what are illegal attacks, putting people’s lives at risk.”

Foreign Secretary Lord Cameron met Iranian counterpart Hossein Amir-Abdollahian while in Davos for the World Economic Forum on Wednesday to discuss the situation in the Middle East, including an emerging tit-for-tat clash between Tehran and Pakistan.

He said Iran should “expect a very strong response” from the West for both its backing of proxies in the region, with the Islamic republic a known supporter of Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, and its recent attacks on Pakistan and Erbil in the Kurdistan region of Iraq.

The former prime minister, speaking to Times Radio, said: “I obviously wanted to deliver a very clear message about what the Houthis are doing in the Red Sea and the fact that these attacks on international shipping are illegal and unacceptable and damaging to world trade.

“They fly in the face of freedom of navigation. That was the principal message.

“But obviously I did challenge him about these other issues as well and said that the world is watching Iran and its influence over these proxies, but also the action it has been taking directly.

“People will draw conclusions from the actions that they are taking and they should expect a very strong response.”

Mr Amir-Abdollahian said on X that he told Lord Cameron, according to an online translation, that “America and England should immediately stop supporting the war crimes of the Zionist apartheid regime against the Palestinians” – a reference to western backing for Israel’s right to respond to Hamas’s deadly October 7 raids.

In a sign of the economic impact of the Red Sea troubles, Poundland owner Pepco said the clashes could have an impact on products available in its stores if the disruption was “prolonged”.

“We note that the current situation in the Red Sea is leading to elevated spot freight rates and delays to container lead times,” Pepco said on Thursday.

The bulk carrier Gibraltar Eagle which was hit by a Houthi missile on Monday
The bulk carrier Gibraltar Eagle was hit by a Houthi missile on Monday (AP)

“The majority of our freight costs are contracted until the end of the third quarter, but the business is facing additional surcharges from carriers in relation to the longer shipping routes being taken.

“While there is limited impact on product availability currently, a prolonged issue in the region could also impact supply in the coming months.”