US and UK consider military-backed clean-up of Yemen tanker

As UN efforts to stop 'FSO Safer' oil spill are thwarted by Iran-aligned Houthis, US and UK may step in to avoid catastrophe

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The US and Britain are increasingly worried about a rusting oil tanker stranded off Yemen’s coast, and are considering a military-backed mission to end the threat of environmental devastation it poses.

Former UK foreign minister Sir Alan Duncan and Ian Ralby, chief executive of IR Consilium, a maritime security consultancy, said the FSO Safer could spill 1.1 million barrels into the Red Sea at any moment, causing chaos on a vital shipping lane and hurting coastal towns.

The UN has pleaded for years with the Iran-backed Houthi rebels who control nearby ports for access to fix the tanker.

Experts have described a growing appetite in the Biden administration, Britain and elsewhere to act now and avert an ecological disaster.

"Don't miss this chance to get it sorted," Mr Duncan, a former UK minister of state for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, told The National.

“You’ve got to empty it and scrap the ship, otherwise the entire Red Sea is at risk.”

He praised US President Joe Biden’s decision to cut support to Saudi-led military operations in Yemen while taking a tough line on the Houthi rebels, who control territory near the decrepit tanker.

“The enlightened change of policy is a fantastic opportunity to sort this environmental threat," Mr Duncan said.

"It would be negligent if this sensible turnaround in approach is not accompanied by a clear policy to make the Safer  safe."

He said he spoke to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson about their shared concerns over the tanker.

A joint clean-up mission could mark an “early success” in Anglo-American ties in the Biden era, said Mr Duncan, a former oil trader who held government jobs including as envoy to Yemen.

“If the UK and the US work together with the UN, there's a good chance of getting this sorted,” he said.

The 45-year-old vessel has been stranded off Ras Isa oil terminal, 60 kilometres north of the Houthi-held port of Hodeidah, since 2015.

The UN says it could spill about 1.1 million barrels of oil into the ocean – four times as much oil as the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster near Alaska.

The UN has repeatedly had to gain Houthi approval for access to fix the tanker, which experts say could rupture at any moment and should be scrapped, only for the rebels to later change their minds.

Houthi officials approved a UN mission late last year, but that now appears unlikely despite the world body spending $3.35 million on recruiting engineers, leasing vessels and acquiring repair gear.

The Houthis say the mission can still go ahead, but analysts say the Iran-backed rebels want the Safer in place to profit from future oil sales and to raise the risks for any seaborne assault by Saudi forces.

Mr Ralby, who advises governments on the vessel, said UN efforts had failed.

He urged the US, Britain and others to push for authorisation of a military operation in the UN Security Council.

The mission would include engineers, backed by armed forces, demining water near the floating storage and offloading platform, and spending one month carefully draining the tanks before the tanker was scrapped, Mr Ralby said.

A major spill would hurt tourism, fishing and desalination plants across Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea and Djibouti, and impede a shipping lane that is used for up to 10 per cent of global trade, he said.

“There is more interest and genuine engagement with this in the last several weeks than there has been the last several years,” Mr Ralby said, referring to policy shifts under the Biden administration.

“There is a groundswell of genuine interest on the part of key governments that would take an interest and actually be able to take some action and maybe move this forward at the UN level.”

UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric on Tuesday said there had been “no movement” on access to the vessel.

Any spill would stop shipments of much-needed fuel, food and other supplies from reaching Houthi-held Hodeidah, Mr Dujarric said.

A US State Department official said the Houthis were "negotiating in bad faith" and urged them to let UN engineers aboard to repair the leaky hulk.

"The only real option is to do everything we can to prevent a spill or explosion, and that requires immediate action," the official told The National.

This week, UK Minister of State James Cleverly told Parliament of a £20 billion ($27.6bn) clean-up operation for what would be the “worst ecological disaster probably in our lifetime”.