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Senior federal minister expresses new caution about US request for ships in Red Sea

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A senior federal minister has expressed new caution about sending a warship to the Middle East to help the United States protect shipping lanes from attack, saying Australia would generally focus instead on its own region.

Trade Minister Don Farrell said the Royal Australia Navy was focused on priorities such as the South China Sea and said the government was still considering the US request for help in the Red Sea to guard against rebels backed by Iran.

But the Opposition is trying to intensify pressure on Labor to make a decision as soon as possible, although Liberal Party deputy leader Sussan Ley stopped short of calling on the government to commit to sending a Navy vessel.

Shiite Houthi soliders in Yemen, said to be backed by Iran, are at war with Arab-backed forces.Credit: AP

“We generally focus our activities in our own region and as we know, we’ve got ships in the South China Sea at the moment,” Farrell told Sky News on Sunday.

“My understanding is that our Defence Minister Richard Marles, has received the request, and we’ll give it due consideration in the days and weeks ahead.”

The position mirrors earlier comments made by Marles on Friday, who told Nine’s Today program that the navy’s focus has been on the immediate region.

The Iran-backed Houthi rebels have involved themselves with the Gaza conflict by escalating maritime tensions as from making near-daily attacks on vital shipping waterways in the Red Sea.

Deputy Liberal leader Sussan Ley.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

The US request for ships came as the government voted in favour of an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza at the United Nations General Assembly, a move that angered Israel and pleased Palestinian advocates.

The opposition has criticised the government for being vague on whether they will deploy ships to the Red Sea, however Ley would not say if the government should commit to this request, instead calling for an answer.

“If they’re not going to do this, we need to know why not sooner rather than later and not have these statements from the defence minister that … don’t seem to say anything at all,” Ley told Sky News on Sunday.

Ley further expressed concern on Australia’s vote in favour of a humanitarian ceasefire as it was a notable split from the US, which voted against the resolution, and the UK, which abstained.

“That’s unfortunate, because the resolution did not condemn Hamas and all that we want to see is the hostages released, everyone wants to see the conflict come to an end,” she said.

Farrell stood by Australia’s stance in calling for a humanitarian ceasefire, saying it was not an unreasonable thing to call for, citing the recent development of three Israeli hostages killed mistakenly in Gaza by Israeli forces as an example of why a humanitarian ceasefire is necessary.

“Like most countries around the world, we are concerned by the number of civilian deaths in Gaza as Israel moves further and further into Gaza,” he said.

Hostages Alon Shamriz, Samer Al-Talalka and Yotam Haim were mistakenly shot by Israeli troops.Credit: AP

Australia will also continue to grant temporary visas to both Palestinians and Israelis throughout the conflict, which Farrell said was unrelated to Australia’s stance for a humanitarian ceasefire.

It was first revealed in November that 860 Palestinians trapped in Gaza and almost 1800 Israelis were allowed to relocate to Australia.

“We have issued visas for Palestinians, we have issued visas in the circumstances to Israelis. Where we think as a government that’s appropriate to do, we’ll continue to do it,” Farrell said.

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