The US has announced the creation of an enhanced naval protection force operating in the southern Red Sea in an attempt to ward off mounting attacks from Yemen’s rebel Houthis on merchant shipping.

Britain said it would be among the countries participating but notable absentees were Arab nations Egypt and Saudi Arabia while analysts speculated that shipping would continue to be disrupted and attacks continue. Lloyd Austin, the US defence secretary, said the new effort would be called Operation Prosperity Guardian and was necessary to tackle the “recent escalation in reckless Houthi attacks originating from Yemen”.

Other participants in the effort, Austin said, included Bahrain, Canada, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Seychelles and Spain.

But it was not clear it had any immediate impact on securing the strategic waterway, through which an estimated 50 merchant ships normally pass each day, heading to and from the Suez canal, often transiting between Asia and Europe.

Danish company Møller–Maersk said on Tuesday it would reroute ships around Africa and the Cape of Good Hope, a journey that takes 10 or more days longer, and that it would continue to monitor the situation closely.

“We have faith that a solution enabling a return to using the Suez Canal and transiting through the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden will be introduced in the near future, but at this time it remains difficult to determine exactly when this will be,” Maersk added.

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Other shipping companies have previously announced they would halt or reroute traffic, including British oil firm BP, Hong Kong’s OOCL, Germany’s Hapag-Lloyd and the Italian-Swiss-owned Mediterranean Shipping Co.

Yemen’s Houthis, who are aligned with Iran, have been eager to show support for Hamas in Gaza, and began by trying to mount long-range missile attacks into Israel. But these were largely intercepted by Saudi Arabia and the US and had no impact. Tactics switched dramatically a month ago, when the Houthi fighters dramatically seized the Galaxy Leader, a British-owned and Japanese-operated cargo ship, in a helicopter raid captured on video. It remains in the Yemeni port of Hodeidah. But while the Houthis initially said they were seeking to target Israeli shipping, they have stepped up their attacks on a wide variety of merchant tankers heading through and towards the 18-mile-wide Bab el-Mandeb strait.

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