AL-MUKALLA: The Iran-backed Houthis had finally given the green light for an international inspection team to board the decaying FSO Safer oil tanker moored off Yemen’s Red Sea coast, the UN said on Tuesday.
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the Houthis on Saturday sent an official letter to the UN confirming their approval for experts to access the stranded vessel to carry out vital maintenance checks.
The 45-year-old ship has been anchored about 60 km north of Hodeidah since the start of Yemen’s civil war five years ago and is loaded with more than 1 million barrels of crude oil. Officials have warned that the rotting tanker posed “grave risks” to the environment and maritime navigation if left unattended any longer.
Although it appeared that the Houthis had at last bowed to local and international pressure, some Yemeni experts and officials remained skeptical as to whether the group would deliver on the promise.
“The objective of the UN-led expert mission is to assess the vessel and undertake initial light maintenance as well as to formulate recommendations on what further action is required to neutralize the risk of an oil spill,” Dujarric added.
During a press briefing in New York, he said that the UN Office for Project Services (UNOPS) would handle picking members of the mission and equipment required for assessing and repairing damage to the Safer.
“I think if everything comes together, we would expect the mission staff and the equipment to arrive on site by late January or early February.”
The tanker has been gradually decaying due to lack of regular maintenance since the Houthis seized control of the province of Hodeidah.
The UN, diplomats, and environmentalists have been pressuring the Houthis to allow international experts to repair the ship following reports that rust has eroded the tanker’s structures, allowing water to enter into its rooms.
Local and international experts have warned that an oil spill would cause a major environmental disaster in the Red Sea that would destroy marine life and disrupt international commercial shipping.
In July, the Houthis agreed to grant the UN access to the tanker before changing their mind, requiring that the team included experts from countries that did not back Saudi-led military operations in Yemen.
Dujarric said that the approval from the Houthis in July was like a “broad statement. It was … if I recall correctly, it had been a broad permission … broad statement of saying, yes, you can come and do what you need to do on the tanker, but we need to figure out the technical modalities.
This time, he added, the Houthis were more serious. “This is a further step in the right direction.”
Western diplomats who have long marshaled pressure on the Houthi group to allow the maintenance of the tanker expressed their optimism with the step, hoping it would help to avert a potential environmental catastrophe.
“The agreement to allow access to the Safer tanker is welcome (and overdue). Making it safe as soon as possible will prevent a potentially huge environmental disaster,” the British Ambassador to Yemen Michael Aron said on Twitter on Wednesday.
But Yemeni political analysts and activists have treated the positive media reports with skepticism, citing the rebels’ long track record of unfulfilled promises.
“There is no deal. The Houthis are playing you and us like a table tennis. The difference is that we know they’re playing us, while you’re still in denial,” Baraa Shiban, a Yemeni activist, said on Twitter on Wednesday.
In a tweet on Wednesday, Nadwa Al-Dawsari, a Yemeni conflict analyst, said: “I will believe it when I see it. Houthis are just trying to buy time to come up with a more convincing lie. It works every time with an international community that base decisions on wishful thinking, not reality. Thanks to the Stockholm agreement, they hold Safer a hostage.”
Meanwhile, Yemen’s Defense Minister Lt. Gen. Mohammed Ali Al-Maqdashi said on Tuesday that dozens of rebel forces, including several field commanders, had been killed in intense fighting outside the central city of Marib and in contested locations in the northern province of Jouf during the last couple of days.
During his visit to flashpoints in Marib on Tuesday, Al-Maqdashi vowed to defeat the Houthis and push them out of areas under their control.
“The Yemeni people and their armed forces are determined to win the battle to end the (Houthi) coup and rebellion and restore state institutions,” official media reported him as saying.