Megaship blocks Suez Canal: What we know

A satellite handout image released by Planet Labs Inc on March 24 shows the MV Ever Given container ship lodged sideways across Egypt's Suez Canal
A satellite handout image released by Planet Labs Inc on March 24 shows the MV Ever Given container ship lodged sideways across Egypt's Suez Canal - Planet Labs/AFP/File
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Cairo (AFP)

A giant container ship got stuck during a sandstorm Tuesday in Egypt's Suez Canal, causing a traffic jam of cargo ships through one of the world's busiest shipping lanes.

Here is what we know so far.

- What happened? -

The 400-metre (1,300-foot) long, 220,000-ton MV Ever Given, from the class of so-called "megaships", veers off-course while a gale-force duststorm hits Egypt's Sinai Desert and much of the Middle East.

The 59-metre wide Taiwan-run, Panama-flagged vessel becomes stuck near the southern end of the canal and diagonally blocks the man-made waterway that connects the Mediterranean with the Red Sea.

Ship operator Evergreen Marine Corp of Taiwan says the vessel -- which was en route from Yantian, China to the Dutch port of Rotterdam -- "ran aground after a suspected gust of wind hit it".

The Suez Canal Authority (SCA) says the accident was "mainly due to the lack of visibility due to the weather conditions when winds reached 40 knots, which affected the control" of the ship.

The 25 crew are unhurt, the hull and cargo undamaged, and there is no oil leak, say the vessel's managers, Singapore-based Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement.

Egyptian tug boats, dredgers and bulldozers get to work trying to free the enormous ship.

- What's the impact? -

The megaship blocks the shipping artery through which more than 10 percent of global maritime trade passes.

The Suez Canal, opened in 1869 and widened since, is a crucial shortcut between Asia and Europe that saves ships from having to navigate around the southern tip of Africa.

As a result of the accident, dozens of vessels are forced to wait at Egypt's Great Bitter Lake midway along the canal, in the Mediterranean and in the Red Sea, says canal service provider Leth Agencies.

Old sections of the canal are reopened in an effort to ease congestion -- but this doesn't solve the fundamental problem because there is only one lane on the southern end where the ship is stuck.

The blockage hits world oil markets as traders anticipate delays in deliveries. Crude futures surged six percent on Wednesday.

"We've never seen anything like it before," said Ranjith Raja, Middle East oil and shipping researcher at international financial data firm Refinitiv.

"It is likely that the congestion... will take several days or weeks to sort out as it will have a knock-on effect on other convoys."

- What happens next? -

The Suez Canal Authority announces Thursday it is "temporarily suspending navigation" along all of the canal.

Egyptian authorities say they have deployed eight additional vessels to free the stricken ship.

Broker Braemar has earlier warned that if tug boats are unable to move the giant vessel, some of its cargo might have to be removed by crane barge to refloat it.

"This can take days, maybe weeks," it says.

The owners of the vessel, Japanese ship-leasing firm Shoei Kisen Kaisha, say Thursday they are facing "extreme difficulty" refloating it.

Company official Toshiaki Fujiwara tells AFP "we still don't know how long it will take".

"We have not heard of any particular progress. Now they are trying to dig out dirt under the bow of the vessel. They will resume tug operations when the tide rises."

He says the ship had an insurance policy, but that the firm is unaware of the details or the costs involved at this stage.

"It's just the beginning," Fujiwara says.

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