Deal reached in Yemen to unload oil from ‘floating bomb’ tanker

Vessel's long-term presence in the Red Sea has raised fears of a massive oil spill or explosion

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The UN has co-ordinated a deal in Yemen to unload more than 1 million barrels of crude oil from the rusting FSO Safer tanker and make safe what officials and experts have described as a ticking environmental time bomb.

The FSO Safer, an offshore floating storage vessel used to export crude oil, has been in place since the 1980s and is at dire risk of breaking apart and unleashing its cargo of oil across the Red Sea.

UN humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths told the UN Security Council about a deal on Tuesday to transfer the oil from the FSO Safer.

Mr Griffiths gave no details of the deal but Hans Grundberg, the UN special envoy for Yemen, told reporters later that progress “as always in Yemen, needs to be solidified in order to be taken forward”.

The tanker is a Japanese-made vessel built in the 1970s and sold to the Yemeni government in the 1980s to store up to 3 million barrels of crude pumped from oilfields in Marib, a province in eastern Yemen that is currently a battlefield. The ship is 360 metres long and has 34 storage tanks.

Since the start of the Yemen war in 2015, experts have been unable to reach the ship to assess the risk and a skeleton crew remains aboard under armed guard by the Houthi rebels to keep the ship together.

Experts and officials have called the FSO Safer a floating bomb. Greenpeace last month said that it could cause "one of the biggest oil spill disasters in history [that] would cause widespread severe environmental damage," adding that “the entire Red Sea region’s drinking water supply could be contaminated by oil in just three weeks following a spill."

The Yemeni government, Saudi Arabia and other states on the Red Sea that would bear the brunt of a catastrophic oil spill have been urging the UN to mediate a settlement with the Houthis, who have barred access to the ship and blocked efforts to unload the cargo.

The Iran-backed Houthis control Yemen’s western Red Sea ports, including Ras Issa, which is 6 kilometres away from where the FSO Safer is moored. The UN has been trying to negotiate with the Houthis for years to try to get experts on the tanker to examine it.

Internal documents obtained by The Associated Press in June 2020 showed seawater had entered the engine compartment of the tanker, causing damage to the pipes and increasing the risk of sinking.

According to the report, experts said maintenance was no longer possible because the damage to the ship was irreversible.

A leak from the crumbling tanker was reported by a top Yemeni official in December.

For months, the UN has attempted to send a team to assess the risk amid international calls for action, but efforts to unload the oil and make the rusting hulk safe have been hampered by the Houthis.

Negotiations between the UN and the rebels in control of the area where the ship is moored failed earlier last year.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Updated: February 16, 2022, 11:36 AM