Yemen pushes UN to salvage oil tanker ‘time bomb’

Country's envoy says the world must get tough on ‘blackmailing’ by the Houthis

(FILES) This handout satellite image obtained courtesy of  Maxar Technologies on July 19, 2020, shows a satellite view of the FSO Safer oil tanker on June 19, 2020, off the port of Ras Isa in Yemen. A UN mission to inspect the long-abandoned FSO Safer fuel tanker off the coast of Yemen, which threatens to rupture and cause a massive oil spill, has been pushed to March, the body said on January 27, 2021."We've hit a few delays with international shipping that were beyond our control and had some back and forth on signing documents, which has now been resolved," UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters. - RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / Satellite image ©2020 Maxar Technologies " - NO MARKETING - NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
 / AFP / Satellite image ©2020 Maxar Technologies / Handout / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / Satellite image ©2020 Maxar Technologies " - NO MARKETING - NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
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Yemen wants the UN Security Council to take “binding deterrent measures” against the Houthi rebels for not allowing repairs on a stranded oil tanker that is close to spilling its million-barrel load into the Red Sea.

In a letter, Yemen's UN ambassador Abdullah Ali Fadhel Al Saadi called for "stricter" action on the FSO Safer, an oil platform moored off Yemen's coast that experts say could soon rupture and release 1.1 million barrels of oil.

Houthi rebels expelled Yemen’s internationally recognised government from the capital Sanaa in 2014. They control much of the area around the Red Sea port of Hodeidah, near where the decaying tanker has been moored for decades.

The UN council should “take binding deterrent measures against the Houthis to ensure the urgent unloading of oil and the disposal of the tanker before the world wakes up to one of the biggest environmental and humanitarian disasters ever,” wrote Mr Al Saadi.

The UN has repeatedly asked the Houthis to grant it access to repair the vessel and prevent a maritime disaster that the world body says could be four times worse than the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill near Alaska.

Houthi officials greenlighted a UN repair mission late last year, but that is currently being reviewed and appears unlikely despite the UN spending $3.35 million on recruiting engineers, leasing vessels and acquiring equipment.

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

In his letter, which was written earlier this month but released on Friday, Mr Al Saadi said the Houthis were using the environmental “time bomb” as a “bargaining chip to achieve political gains” in peace talks.

“The Houthis are also using the issue to blackmail the international community in disregard of the consequences of the imminent leak or explosion of more than 1 million barrels of oil and its dire environmental, economic and humanitarian impact,” he wrote.

The UN Security Council is set to discuss the tanker and revived efforts to end Yemen's war on Thursday. Britain's UN mission, which currently holds the council's rotating presidency, did not immediately answer The National's request for comment.

The letter comes amid growing appetite to counter the looming maritime disaster in Britain and in the Biden administration in the US, which has made ending Yemen's war a priority, two experts told The National.

Former UK foreign minister Sir Alan Duncan and Ian Ralby, chief executive of I R Consilium, a maritime security consultancy, said UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Biden administration officials are weighing a salvage operation.

The 45-year-old vessel has been stranded eight kilometres south-west of Ras Issa oil terminal, which is 60km north of the Houthi-held port of Hodeidah, since 2015, when the rebels took control of the region.

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 about 10 per cent of global trade.