Saudi-led military committee ends heavy weapons counting in Aden

A soldier loyal to the international government, manning a machine gun mounted on a vehicle in the southeastern port city of Al-Mukalla, the capital of Hadramawt province. (AFP)
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Updated 19 January 2020

Saudi-led military committee ends heavy weapons counting in Aden

  • The process is part of the security and military arrangements included in the Riyadh Agreement

MUKALLA: A joint military committee, led by Saudi officers in Yemen, will on Sunday finish counting medium and heavy weapons inside bases belonging to the government and Southern Transitional Council in Yemen’s port city of Aden, a committee member told Arab News.

The process is part of the security and military arrangements included in the Riyadh Agreement that eased tensions between the internationally recognized government and the pro-independence Southern Transitional Council.
“We have visited almost all military bases in Aden and we are ending the counting tomorrow (Sunday),” the pro-government officer said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.
The next step is transferring the registered weapons to an agreed location before distributing them to military units battling the Iranian-backed Houthi militia.
Under the agreement’s security and military arrangements, both sides should withdraw forces from contested areas in Shabwa and Abyan and allow presidential forces to enter Aden.
Hundreds of troops were reportedly pulled out of their positions in the two provinces last week, a sign that both sides are committed to putting into place the terms of the agreement despite some delays.
The government officer said they did not confront any hurdles while counting military weapons, but did not find as many heavy weapons as expected. “There are some missing weapons inside the council’s brigades,” the officer said, adding that the team agreed to collect the weapons in a military outpost in Aden’s Beir Ahmad.
After collecting weapons and dispatching them to battlefields, the committee will apply the same process in Aden’s neighboring provinces such as Lahj and Abyan.

HIGHLIGHT

Hundreds of troops were pulled out of their positions in the two provinces last week, a sign that both sides are committed to putting into place into the terms of the agreement despite some delays.

To prevent any further confrontations in Aden — Yemen’s temporary capital and the base — the government, military and security units will be armed with light weapons under the watch of Saudi forces in the city.
The Aden Al-Ghad news site reported on Friday that columns of armed vehicles carrying Saudi forces were seen winding through the southern province of Shabwa en route to Aden, joining troops deployed in the city.
Last week the commander of Saudi-led forces in Aden, Brig. Gen. Mujahid Al Otaibi, told reporters that the coalition was determined to push for the full implementation of the Riyadh Agreement.
On the frontlines, fighting intensified between government forces and Houthi militia in Hodeida, Sana’a and Marib despite the calm of the last few months.
Yemen’s Ministry of Defense said that the army’s demining engineers on Wednesday defused an Iranian-made naval landmine off the coast of an island in Hodeida province.
The army said the landmine confirmed government accusations that Iran had supplied Houthis with weapons including ballistic missiles, rockets and landmines along with military knowhow.
Houthi militias have increased the planting of naval mines in the last couple of years off the Red Sea province of Hodeida to obstruct an offensive as government forces push on the city’s edges.
In Hodeida, the pro-government Joint Forces have pushed back attempts by Houthis to advance in Attuhyita and other locations.
The Yemen conflict began in late 2014 when Houthi militias seized power and forced Yemen President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi to flee Sana’a and settle in Aden before asking for military help from the Kingdom.


How the FSO Safer is an impending danger to the Red Sea and Yemen

Updated 21 September 2020

How the FSO Safer is an impending danger to the Red Sea and Yemen

  • Houthi refusal of passage to experts to carry out repairs has raised specter of a floating time bomb
  • Saudi Arabia has called for a meeting for Arab environment ministers to discuss ways to avoid a catastrophe

AL-MUKALLA, Yemen: Until the Iran-backed Houthi militia seized Yemen’s western port city of Hodeidah in late 2014, foreign and local experts had been regularly visiting a 45-year-old oil tanker moored in the Red Sea.

It was a practice that ensured that the FSO Safer, abandoned just a few kilometers off Yemen’s coast, did not touch off a disaster by exploding or sinking and spilling oil. But having witnessed the devastation caused by the Aug. 4 blast in Beirut and taken its lessons to heart, the Arab world cannot afford to ignore the imminent danger posed by Houthi stalling tactics.

Expressing concerns about the condition of the vessel, Saudi Arabia has called for a meeting for Arab environment ministers on Monday. According to a statement issued on Sunday by Kamal Hassan, assistant secretary-general and head of the Economic Affairs Sector at the Arab League, the aim of the special session is to discuss ways and mechanisms to activate Resolution No. 582, which was adopted by the Council of Arab Ministers Responsible for Environmental Affairs in Oct. 2019.

The objective is to “find an appropriate solution to avoid an environmental catastrophe due to the failure to maintain the oil ship Safer anchored off the Ras Issa oil port in the Red Sea since 2015.”

When the Houthi militia gained control of Hodeidah, the FSO Safer was carrying 1.1 million barrels of oil, or almost half of its capacity, according to local officials. No sooner had the fighters tightened their grip on the city than technical experts fled the area, realizing that it had become too dangerous for them to stay on.

Over the past two years, the FSO Safer has attracted regional as well as international attention on and off, thanks in part to the regular appearance on social media of photos of rusting pipes and water leaking into the engine rooms, raising the specter of a floating powder keg.

INNUMBER

45 Age of oil tanker FSO Safer

1.1m Barrels of crude oil in tanker

During the same period, Yemeni government officials, environmentalists and foreign diplomats have sounded the alarm over possible outcomes that could both exacerbate the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and take a heavy environmental toll on the Red Sea littoral states.

The UN has suggested sending a team of experts to Hodeidah to assess the damage to the FSO Safer, but the Houthi militia, who want to pocket the proceeds from sale of the oil, have rejected the proposal. The oil in the FSO Safer’s storage tanks was once estimated to be worth $40 million, but its value now may be less than half of that as crude prices have fallen a lot since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, according to reports.

The internationally recognized government of Yemen has repeatedly accused the Houthi militia of using the decaying tanker as a bargaining chip, citing demands such as the resumption of salaries for public servants in areas under its control, removal of government forces from Hodeidah, and more relaxed inspection of ships bound for the port.

An oil spill would devastate the livelihoods of nearly four million Yemeni people, with fishing stocks taking 25 years to recover. (AFP)

In July, the government requested the UN Security Council to convene an urgent session to discuss the Safer issue amid concern that time was running out. In almost all their meetings with foreign envoys and diplomats, Yemeni officials bring up the matter of the tanker and the attendant risk of an environmental disaster in the Red Sea. For the past several months, Western and Arab diplomats, UN officials, aid organizations and experts too have underscored the urgency of breaking the deadlock in order to avert a human, economic and environmental catastrophe.

In July, the UN described the rusting tanker as a “ticking time bomb,” adding that the tanker’s cargo of oil could cause an environmental disaster four times bigger than the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill off Alaska. Last week, the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres added his voice to the growing concern over the deadlock by appealing to the Houthi militia to give UN experts access to the oil tanker.

As for the Trump administration, its views were conveyed via a tweet by the US mission to the UN that said: “The US calls on the Houthis to cease obstruction and interference in aid ops and fuel imports. We urge the Houthis to cease their assault on religious freedom and to permit UN technical teams immediate, unconditional access to the Safer oil tanker.”

In comments to Arab News in June, Michael Aron, the British ambassador to Yemen, said unless the Houthi leadership allowed experts to address the FSO Safer’s problems, the potential damage to the environment is far greater than that caused by the recent spillage of 20,000 tons of fuel in Russia’s Siberia. “The threat to the environment in the Red Sea is enormous, and will impact on all the countries who share this coastline,” he said.

Independent researchers too say the condition of Safer is deeply concerning. In a paper for the Atlantic Council in 2019 entitled “Why the massive floating bomb in the Red Sea needs urgent attention,” energy experts Dr. Ian Ralby, Dr. David Soud and Rohini Ralby said the potential consequences of an oil-tanker disaster in the area include an end to the two-year ceasefire in Hodeidah and an aggravation of Yemen’s humanitarian crisis.

“The risk of explosion increases by the day, and if that were to happen, not only would it damage or sink any ships in the vicinity, but it would create an environmental crisis roughly four and a half times the size of the Exxon Valdez oil spill,” the three scientists said. Other experts have speculated that just a stray bullet from an exchange of fire between rival factions could trigger off an explosion of the FSO Safer’s oil cargo.

Yemeni NGO Holm Akhdar says 126,000 people working in the fishing industry could lose their jobs in the case of a disaster.

“Even worse, given the complexity of this war, an errant bullet or shell from any one of the combatants could trigger a blast as large as Beirut’s August 4th disaster, prompting a historic oil spill,” Dave Harden, managing director of Georgetown Strategy Group, wrote in an op-ed in The Hill last month. He added: “Clean-up efforts would be daunting — given the insecurity of being in a war zone and the additional health risks from COVID-19.”

Similar concerns have been expressed by local government officials and fishermen in Hodeidah. Waleed Al-Qudaimi, deputy governor of Hodeidah, said that any spillage from the FSO Safer would create a humanitarian crisis as severe as the one caused by the Houthi insurgency.

“It (the oil spill) will add an additional burden that will affect Yemen for the next decades, deprive thousands of people of their jobs and destroy marine biodiversity in Yemeni waters,” he said. Al-Qudaimi appealed to the international community to keep up pressure on the militia to allow maintenance work to be carried out.

For a country reeling from a combination of conflict, humanitarian crisis, plunging currency and crumbling economy, repairs to an abandoned oil tanker off its coast might not carry the ring of urgency normally associated with a major disaster.

But now that the world knows what happened when Lebanese officials ignored warnings for years over a cache of highly explosive material stored in a Beirut port warehouse, the importance of resolving the FSO Safer issue cannot be overstated.

 

Twitter: @saeedalBatati