DUBAI - Saudi Arabia said on Thursday it was "temporarily halting" all oil shipments through the strategic Red Sea shipping lane of Bab al-Mandeb after an attack on two big oil tankers by Yemen's Houthi rebels.
Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih said in a statement sent by his ministry that the Houthis had attacked two Saudi Very Large Crude Carriers, or VLCCs, in the Red Sea on Wednesday morning, one of which sustained minimal damage.
"Saudi Arabia is temporarily halting all oil shipments through Bab al-Mandeb Strait immediately until the situation becomes clearer and the maritime transit through Bab al-Mandeb is safe," the statement said.
Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition has been battling the Houthis in a three-year war, lies beside the southern mouth of the Red Sea, one of the most important trade routes in the world for oil tankers. The vessels pass near Yemen's shores while heading from the Middle East through the Suez Canal to Europe.
The Saudi coalition intervened in Yemen's civil war in 2015 to restore the government of exiled president Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Saudi Arabia accuses Iran of supplying missiles to the Houthis, which both Teheran and the Houthis deny.
The Western-backed coalition led by Saudi Arabia launched an offensive in June to wrest Yemen's main port of Hodeidah from the Houthis in a bid to cut off the primary supply line of the Houthi movement, which holds the most populated areas of Yemen including the capital Sanaa.
Earlier this month, the alliance called a halt to the offensive to give UN efforts a chance to reach a political solution that would avert an assault on the port, a lifeline for millions of Yemenis. The United Nations fears an all-out assault on the port risks triggering a famine in the impoverished country.
Most exports from the Gulf that transit the Suez Canal and the SUMED Pipeline also pass through Bab al-Mandeb strait. An estimated 4.8 million barrels per day of crude oil and refined petroleum products flowed through this waterway in 2016 toward Europe, the United States and Asia, according to the US Energy Information Administration.
The Bab al-Mandeb strait, where the Red Sea meets the Gulf of Aden in the Arabian Sea, is only 20 kilometers wide, making hundreds of ships potential easy targets.
The ministry statement said both tankers that were attacked were operated by Saudi shipping company Bahri, which had earlier said that one of its VLCCs had suffered minor damage in an incident in the Red Sea, without elaborating.
The Houthis' Al-Masirah TV had said on Twitter that they had targeted a Saudi "battleship" named the Dammam off the western coast of Yemen in what the group later said was a missile attack.
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