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Saudi Arabia said Thursday it was "temporarily halting" all oil shipments through the Red Sea shipping lane of Bab al-Mandeb — one of the most important tanker routes in the world — after an attack on two ships by Yemen's Iran-aligned Houthi militants.
Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih said the Houthis attacked two Saudi vessels Wednesday morning, one of which sustained minor damage.
The strait, where the Red Sea meets the Gulf of Aden in the Arabian Sea, is only 12 miles wide, making hundreds of ships potentially an easy target.
Tankers heading from the Middle East through the Suez Canal to Europe pass near the shores of Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition has been battling the Houthis in a three-year war.
The Saudi coalition intervened in Yemen's civil war in 2015 to restore the internationally recognized government of exiled president Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Saudi Arabia accuses regional arch-foe Iran of supplying missiles to the Houthis, which both Tehran and the Houthis deny.
A Western-backed coalition of Sunni Muslim states, led by Saudi Arabia, launched an offensive in June to wrest Yemen's main port of Hodeidah from the Houthis. The Houthis hold the most populated areas of Yemen including the capital, Sanaa.
The coalition called a halt to the offensive earlier this month in order to give U.N. efforts a chance to reach a political solution that would avert an assault on the port, a lifeline for millions of Yemenis. The United Nations fears a famine in the impoverished country.
Most exports from the Gulf that transit the Suez Canal and the SUMED Pipeline also pass through Bab al-Mandeb strait.
An estimated 4.8 million barrels per day of crude oil and refined petroleum products flowed through this waterway in 2016 towards Europe, the United States and Asia, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Thousands of civilians have been killed in Yemen during the conflict, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has said.