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Norway joins Red Sea defense forces

The Norwegian government is sending naval officers to the Red Sea, to help secure civilian merchant navigation after another Norwegian ship was attacked on Monday. The attack brings Israel’s war on the radical Palestinian organization Hamas in Gaza closer to home, after a string of demonstrations in Oslo against it.

Norway has experience from military operations to protect merchant marine ships in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, like this one against piracy in 2013. PHOTO: Forsvaret/Torbjørn Kjosvold

Members of the Houthi militia in Yemen, which supports the Palestinians, have been launching drone attacks on ships believed to be tied to Israel. The Bergen-based owner of the tanker MV Swan Atlantic claimed the militia was wrong, however, in reportedly believing its vessel was operated by a firm with ties to Israel.

“We have no connections to Israel, neither on the ownership- nor operating side,” Øystein Elgan of Inventor Chemical Tankers told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) after the vessel was struck Monday morning. “The vessel wasn’t heading for Israel either.”

Inventor Chemical Tankers is owned by the Norwegian investment firm Rieber & Søn AS in Bergen and was carrying a cargo of biodiesel when a Houthi drone rammed a water tank and punched a hole in the vessel. Elgan said no crew members on board the vessel were killed or injured, and it was being escorted to the closest safe harbour by an American naval vessel.

A Houthi spokesman, meanwhile, insisted to NRK that the Swan Atlantic was bound for Israel, and stood by its information “100 percent.”

It’s the second Norwegian ship to be attacked off Yemen, after the chemical tanker Strinda was hit on December 12. The Strinda is also owned by a Bergen-based firm, J Ludwig Mowinckels Rederi, and the Norwegian Shipowners Association is sounding the alarms since around 40 Norwegian-owned vessels are in the area. Several other shipping firms, including Mærsk of Denmark, have also been hit including also a British vessel on Monday, the MCS Clara. Reuters reported that none of its crew was hurt either, but that doesn’t console the shipowners or their crews.

“The attacks underscore the ever-more serious situation in the Red Sea,” said Harald Solberg, leader of the shipowners’ organization, Rederiforbundet. He said more shipowners and operators will choose to avoid the Red Sea and Suez Canal, now that the situation there is so tense. That in turn will disrupt international trade, since the only alternative is to sail around Africa.

“There’s only that one alternative route,” Solberg said, adding that it will lead to delays of at least seven to 10 days. “It’s dramatic that merchant shipping is now becoming a target.”

The shipowners’ organization was in talks on Monday with Norway’s foreign ministry, which also is alarmed. “We are extremely worried about the developments in the Red Sea,” Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide told NRK. He called the attacks on merchant shipping “totally unacceptable” and said Norway fears escalation.

He said the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza is polarizing the world: “This is a fear we’ve had for a long time and now it’s blowing up in the Middle East, so this can spread. Various militant groups, many of them allied with Iran, are taking the opportunity to use the unrest for their own goals.”

The US took the initiative to strengthen the defense forces in the Red Sea that Norway is now joining, called Combined Maritime Forces (CMF). “Things are happening very quickly,” said Norwegian Defense Minister Bjørn Arild Gram, after confirming that Norway is sending 10 officers to join the international effort to secure shipping through the Red Sea.

“This is very serious,” Gram told NRK. “Norway is a maritime nation with one of the world’s largest merchant fleets. It’s important that we protect this traffic as an important part of international trade.” He noted that Norway already has a military presence in the area that it’s now strengthening: “We have unique competence within maritime operations and have experience from earlier operations in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. The Norwegian officers’ assignment is to coordinate and arrange for safe passage for civilian vessels.”

It’s ironic that the militia supporting in Hamas would target Norwegian ships, since Norway has been among the most outspoken at the UN in advocating a ceasefire. Eide himself was among the first to criticize Israel for “going too far” with its revenge on Hamas by incessantly bombing Gaza and killing nearly 20,000 Palestinian civilians to date.

Dozens of photos of civilian victims in Gaza are on display outside the Norwegian Parliament in Oslo, and large demonstrations against the war were once again carried out over the weeked. PHOTO: Berglund

Palestinian victims are also being remembered in frequent pro-Palestinian demonstrations in Oslo, where a stationary memorial to Palestinians killed has been set up in front of the Norwegian Parliament. An estimated 13,000 demonstrated against the war in Oslo alone this past weekend, and thousands more all over the country. More than 100 organizations and political parties are behind the demonstrations, at which Israel’s attacks on Gaza have been equated to genocide.

The University of Oslo (UiO), meanwhile, reported Monday that a researcher tied to the university had been killed in Gaza, after being part of a project led by the university and funded by Norway’s development agency Norad. News of the researcher’s death was received “with great sorow,” wrote UiO rector Svein Stølen.

At the same time, Monday’s latest attacks further sent up the price of oil, along with the share value of some publicly traded Norwegian shipping companies. The oil price hike strengthened Norway’s weak krone, too, so the country once again is also profiting on hostilities abroad.

Norway’s state oil company Equinor, meanwhile, told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) that it’s among those opting to avoid the Red Sea, redirecting some of the vessels carrying its oil around Africa. “We’re following the situation closely and are in dialogue with the shipowners transporting on our behalf,” Equinor spokesperson Ellen Maria Skjelsbæk told DN. Berglund



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