Yemen's Houthis sign UN deal to unload 'floating bomb' oil tanker

After six years, Yemeni rebels agree to a plan to make safe the ship, which threatens lives and ecosystems around the Red Sea

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A decaying oil tanker with more than a million barrels of crude oil aboard, described as a ticking ecological time bomb, may soon be unloaded and made safe after Yemen’s Houthi rebels signed a deal with the UN.

Houthi officials over the weekend said that the deal with the UN would allow the FSO Safer oil storage platform off the Yemeni coast to be unloaded.

"On 5 March, Sanaa authorities and the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen, David Gressly signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to establish a framework for cooperation on the UN-coordinated proposal to resolve the threat posed by the FSO Safer," Russell Geekie, Mr Gressly's senior communications adviser, told The National.

"The MoU establishes that the proposal is contingent upon donor funding and would include a short-term solution to eliminate the immediate threat by moving the million barrels of oil aboard the Safer to an oil tanker, as well as a long-term solution," he said.

"The Sana’a authorities also commit to facilitating the success of the project," Mr Geekie said.

The rusting FSO Safer tanker has been in place off Yemen’s Red Sea oil terminal of Ras Issa since the 1980s and is at risk of breaking apart and releasing its cargo of oil into the Red Sea.

UN aid chief Martin Griffiths said last month that there was an agreement in principle to shift the oil from the tanker to another ship. He gave no timeline.

The Iran-backed Houthis have blocked access to the FSO Safer for more than six years and only a skeleton staff remain aboard to keep it operational, under armed rebel guard.

UN officials said the ship could spill four times as much oil as the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster off Alaska.

"A memorandum of understanding has been signed with the United Nations for the Safer tanker," Mohammed Ali Al Houthi, head of the Houthi supreme revolutionary committee, said on Twitter.

A deal had previously been reached for a technical UN team to inspect the deteriorating vessel, built in 1976, and conduct whatever repairs may be feasible, but final agreement on logistical arrangements did not materialise and the Houthis were accused of blocking access.

The Houthis are fighting Yemen's internationally recognised government after seizing the capital in a coup in 2015. The rebels control the area where the tanker is moored and the national oil company that owns it.

Updated: March 07, 2022, 5:15 PM