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Environmental crisis unfolds, Rubymar cargo ship faces imminent threat after Houthi attack

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In this satellite image provided by Planet Labs, the Belize-flagged bulk carrier Rubymar is seen in the southern Red Sea near the Bay el-Mandeb Strait leaking oil after an attack by Yemen's Houthi rebels Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024. Despite a month of U.S.-led airstrikes, Yemen's Iran-backed Houthi rebels remain capable of launching significant attacks. This week, they seriously damaged a ship in a crucial strait and apparently downed an American drone worth tens of millions of dollars. (Planet Labs PBC via AP)

The Rubymar, a Belize-flagged cargo ship, has become the epicenter of an environmental disaster in the Gulf of Aden. Following a missile strike by Yemeni rebels, identified as Iran-backed Houthi militants, the vessel is now in perilous waters, slowly taking on water and leaving an alarming 18-mile oil slick in its wake.

The Rubymar, operated by the Blue Fleet Group and carrying over 41,000 tons of combustible fertilizer, sustained significant damage when a missile struck its side on a fateful Sunday. The crew’s evacuation to Djibouti ensued as water infiltrated the engine room, causing the ship’s stern to sag, as reported by Blue Fleet CEO Roy Khoury.

A subsequent missile hit the ship’s deck, fortunately without causing major damage, according to Khoury’s statements to AFP. US Central Command (CENTCOM) has reported that the vessel is currently anchored but faces a potential worsening of its condition.

CENTCOM’s post on X (formerly Twitter) highlighted the gravity of the situation, emphasizing the risk of the fertilizer spill exacerbating the environmental disaster in the Red Sea.

Blue Fleet, the ship’s operator, has indicated plans to tow the Rubymar to Djibouti this week, though concerns persist. An image shared by Khoury on Wednesday showed the ship’s stern noticeably low in the water, raising questions about the possibility of sinking. While Khoury stated there is “no risk for now, but always a possibility,” uncertainties loom over the ship’s fate.

The attack on the Rubymar marks a significant escalation in the Houthi campaign against commercial ships since November. The rebels claim solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza during the Israel-Hamas war, prompting shipping companies to reroute around southern Africa to avoid the Red Sea – a critical route for global maritime trade.

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development issued a warning last month, citing a more than 40 percent drop in commercial traffic passing through the Suez Canal over the previous two months. As the Rubymar crisis unfolds, the world watches anxiously, grappling with both environmental and geopolitical repercussions.

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