Red Sea attacks: Sheep and cattle left stranded off Australia’s coast

File image of a group of sheep
Image caption,Australia exports hundreds of thousands of sheep and cattle to the Middle East every year

There are fears for the welfare of 16,000 sheep and cattle which are stuck on a ship off the coast of Australia – due to events more than 10,000km away.

The animals are on board the MV Bahijah in extreme heat. The ship abandoned its journey earlier this month through the Red Sea – where Houthi fighters in Yemen have been attacking ships.

The boat returned to Australia, but remains at sea pending a decision on whether some animals can be offloaded.

Officials pointed to quarantine rules.

Updates from Australia’s agriculture department on Wednesday said any animals arriving in the country by boat would be subject to “strict biosecurity controls”, meaning quarantine, though it was stressed that health and welfare were high-priority.

Australia’s government says its biosecurity rules, some of the toughest on the planet, have kept the country free from many of the world’s most invasive pests and diseases.

The incident highlights the far-reaching consequences of recent attacks on ships by Houthi militia, who are backed by Iran.

The fighters began attacking ships in response to Israel’s actions in the Palestinian enclave of Gaza. They have insisted they only target ships linked to Israel.

The vessel in question was bound for Israel when it set sail from Fremantle, Western Australia, on 5 January. The animals were among hundreds of thousands sent from Australia to the Middle East every year.

The government says it told the ship to return to Australia on 20 January, citing the “exceptional circumstances” at work.

The Red Sea is a critical shipping route which provides access to the Suez Canal – which itself offers the quickest way for ships to pass between Asia and Europe.

Ongoing insecurity has prompted international shipping firms to take long diversions around southern Africa, causing severe disruption to global supply chains.

The US and UK have launched strikes against Houthi targets in Yemen, saying they are protecting commerce. They have been supported by several other countries including Australia.

Some 14,000 sheep and 2,000 cattle are stuck on board the Bahijah in temperatures close to 40C (104F), the Reuters news agency quoted farm and exporter groups as saying.

The ship’s manager has not commented on the plight of the livestock.

The Australian government looked to strike a reassuring note in its Wednesday-evening update, which said two independent vets had been to visit the animals on board.

They found “no evidence of any significant health, welfare or environmental concerns”, the statement said.

The events have shone a spotlight on the conditions faced by animals sent on boats overseas.

Last April, New Zealand banned the live export of animals after an incident that saw thousands of cows drown in a shipwreck. The Australian government has pledged to outlaw the export of live sheep.

BBC map shows the consequences of ships diverting away from the Red Sea - incurring a much longer journey around the Cape of Good Hope in southern Africa

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