AL-MUKALLA: The UN on Wednesday expressed fears that the Iran-backed Houthis could be about to break a promise to allow an international inspection team to board the decaying FSO Safer oil tanker moored off Yemen’s Red Sea coast.
Officials accused the rebels of dragging their heels over guarantees for the safety of experts waiting to access the stranded vessel to carry out vital maintenance checks.
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said: “We are very concerned by indications that the Houthi de-facto authorities are considering a ‘review’ of their formal approval of the mission to deploy.
“Houthi officials have advised the UN to pause certain preparations pending the outcome of such process, which would create further delays to the mission.”
He added that the UN had delayed the inspectors’ visit to the tanker after the Houthis failed to submit a letter pledging to protect team members, an assurance that could reduce the cost of the mission “by hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
“We have requested the Houthi de-facto authorities to provide a letter with security assurances. We regret that, to date, we have not received a response to our multiple requests for this letter,” Dujarric said.
The 45-year-old ship has been anchored about 60 km north of Hodeidah since the start of Yemen’s civil war six 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.
Due to the lack of regular maintenance, seawater has reportedly started to leak into some of the ship’s rooms.
Experts also fear a stray shell from fighting in Hodeidah or a naval mine could trigger an explosion on the Safer similar to the Beirut port blast in August.
The first signs of a Houthi U-turn on the UN inspection mission came last week when Houthi deputy foreign minister, Hussein Al-Ezzi, said that the group had informed the UN of its rejection of the written security guarantees, accusing the international body of violating a deal with the movement.
Al-Ezzi vowed to withdraw approval for the mission’s visit to Yemen if any connection was found between members of the UN team and the US.
“We hope to receive a renewed commitment from the Houthi de-facto authorities to resolve this urgent matter as soon as possible. Any other outcome would be extremely disappointing,” Dujarric added.
The EU delegation to Yemen has demanded the Houthis give an immediate green light to the UN team.
In a statement, the delegation said: “Ambassadors of the EU to Yemen, together with Norway and Switzerland, were briefed on Tuesday by different UN agencies on the developments regarding the Safer tanker in the Red Sea. The human and environmental safety of the region cannot accept any more delays.”
In Aden, the internationally recognized government of Yemen strongly condemned the Houthi obstructions to the UN mission and demanded the international community punish the group for its actions.
Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak, Yemen’s foreign minister, urged the international community to “decisively” deal with the Houthis’ failure to comply with the UN, and warned that the rebels were “indifferent” to the possible destructive implications of the decaying tanker’s explosion or collapse.
“We have repeatedly warned of this Houthi behavior and their use of the Safer tanker as a pressure card in front of the international community, indifferent to the potential catastrophic effects on the environment and marine life,” Bin Mubarak told Arab News.
Yemen’s government has warned that a major oil leak from the tanker would wreck the livelihoods of thousands of Yemeni fishermen, close Hodeidah and other Yemeni seaports, and cause an ecological disaster.
Najeeb Ghallab, undersecretary at Yemen’s Information Ministry and a political analyst, told Arab News: “This is a very important message from the UN to the world. It says the Houthis are using the tanker as a blackmail card.”
He said the Houthis believed that the tanker provided them with a shield against any military offensive by the government to liberate Hodeidah.
“The Houthis want the UN experts to fix the damage only and keep the tanker with oil so as to continue using it as a weapon in their hands,” Ghallab added.