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Ship blocking Suez Canal could 'take weeks' to clear

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A container ship blocking the Suez Canal like a “beached whale” may take weeks to free, the salvage company says, as officials stopped all ships entering the channel in a new setback for global trade.

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The 400m vessel, almost as long as the Empire State Building is high, is blocking transit in both directions through one of the world’s busiest shipping channels for oil and grain and other trade linking Asia and Europe.

The Suez Canal Authority (SCA) said eight tugs were working to move the vessel, which got stuck diagonally across the single-lane southern stretch of the canal on Tuesday morning amid high winds and a dust storm.

“We can’t exclude it might take weeks, depending on the situation,” Peter Berdowski, CEO of Dutch company Boskalis which is trying to free the ship, told the Dutch television program Nieuwsuur.

A total of 156 large container ships, tankers carrying oil and gas, and bulk vessels hauling grain have backed up at either end of the canal, Egypt’s Leth Agencies said, creating one of the worst shipping jams seen for years.

Three ships were being escorted out of the canal, it added.

The blockage comes on top of the disruption to world trade already caused in the past year by COVID-19, with trade volumes hit by high rates of ship cancellations, shortages of containers and slower handling speeds at ports.

The SCA, which had allowed some vessels to enter the canal in the hope the blockage could be cleared, said it had temporarily suspended all traffic on Thursday.

Shipping giant Maersk said in a customer advisory it had seven vessels affected.

Berdowski said the ship’s bow and stern had been lifted up against either side of the canal.

“It is like an enormous beached whale. It’s an enormous weight on the sand. We might have to work with a combination of reducing the weight by removing containers, oil and water from the ship, tug boats and dredging of sand.”

A new attempt to move it would take place later on Thursday, the ship’s technical manager, Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement (BSM), said.

Roughly 30 per cent of the world’s shipping container volume transits through the 193km Suez Canal daily and about 12 per cent of total global trade of all goods.

Shipping experts say that if the blockage is not cleared in the coming days, some shipping may re-route around Africa, which would add roughly a week to the journey.

-AAP

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