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Piracy fears mount as ships take long way around Africa to avoid blocked Suez Canal

A specialized dredger assisted in efforts to dislodge the container ship Ever Given, which remained stuck in the Suez Canal Friday.
A specialized dredger assisted in efforts to dislodge the container ship Ever Given, which remained stuck in the Suez Canal Friday.Salma El Wardany/Bloomberg

CAIRO — Brand-new Kia automobiles, cases of Heineken beer, live animals, and billions of dollars of crude oil and other commodities remained stranded Friday in the Suez Canal as tugboats and dredgers tried to free a grounded container ship that has come to symbolize the perils of a global economy that relies on being able to send goods around the world in larger and larger vessels.

The Ever Given, one of the largest container ships ever built, has been stuck in the canal since Tuesday, creating an increasingly expensive traffic jam on both sides of the waterway that connects Asia to Europe. Some tankers have already opted to change course and travel around the southern tip of Africa instead, adding weeks to their journeys and raising fears that the valuable cargo could be an appealing target in a region known for piracy.

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“It just shows you how vulnerable our supply-chain lines are,” said Guy Platten, secretary general for the UK-based International Chamber of Shipping.

On Friday morning, the canal’s service provider, Leth Agencies, said in a tweet that the Ever Given “remains grounded in the same position” with tugboats and dredgers working to dislodge the vessel, which is blocking the flow of an estimated $12 billion in goods.

Meanwhile, the Japanese owner of the ship expressed hope that it could be freed by Saturday night. Yukito Higaki, president of Shoei Kisen Kaisha, apologized Friday for the “great trouble and concern,” adding, “we want to work hard and get the situation back to normal,” according to the Japanese financial news website Nikkei Asia.

Egypt’s Suez Canal Authority said Friday afternoon that its dredging operations were roughly 87 percent complete, but navigational safety regulations prevented the dredging ship from moving too close to the Ever Given. Other methods of removing the sand will be deployed, the authority said, without specifying what that might entail.

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With some experts predicting that freeing the ship could take weeks, some global shipping companies on Friday began seeking alternative routes for their cargo.

“We’re now beginning to see even vessels that had entered the Mediterranean hang a U-turn,” Lars Jensen, the CEO of Denmark-based SeaIntelligence Consulting, told The Washington Post. “That’s an indication that they don’t believe this is going to be solved in the short term.”

At least seven tankers carrying liquefied natural gas were diverted, including three steered toward the longer route to Europe via the Cape of Good Hope in southern Africa. Another nine tankers were expected to be diverted if the blockage continues into the weekend, an analyst for data intelligence firm Kpler told the Guardian newspaper.

At least four long-range oil tankers with the capacity to haul 75,000 tons of oil were also possibly headed around the Cape of Good Hope, London-based ship brokering firm Braemar ACM told Reuters, adding that shipping rates have nearly doubled this week “as the market starts to price in fewer vessels being available in the region.”

With more ships potentially being diverted to the Cape of Good Hope, piracy could increase. Pirates have long preyed on ships moving in the waters off the Horn of Africa, and the seas off oil-rich West Africa are now considered among the world’s most dangerous for shipping.