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Fears Of Red Sea Environmental Disaster Grow As UN-Houthis Talks On Safer Tanker Fail

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By Saee Al-Batati

The UN will continue talks with Iran-backed Houthi rebels until they agree to allow its experts to begin a vital assessment of the floating oil tanker Safer, and also urged the rebels to be more cooperative.

“We are continuing our efforts to send a team to the FSO Safer,” UN spokesman Farhan Haq told Arab News, adding that the primary goal of the UN salvage expedition was to assess the damage and conduct “light” maintenance to prevent the tanker from crumbling.

“This is what we said a month ago about this: ‘The United Nations is committed to its planned mission to assess the Safer oil tanker, conduct light feasible repairs to reduce the risk of a spill and formulate evidence-based recommendations for a permanent solution.”

The UN official was responding to Arab News’ request to comment on Houthi accusations that the UN was responsible for delays in the arrivals of the mission for allegedly breaching an agreement with the rebels.  

On Thursday, the Houthi-controlled Safer Agreement Committee (SAC) blamed the UN Office for Project Services (UNOPS) for the failure of talks to repair the floating tanker after insisting on carrying out a “mere visual inspection work” rather than addressing the issue once and for all.

“The committee regrets the failure of UNOPS to comply with the agreement signed in November 2020 and its insistence on wasting time and wasting donors’ funds allocated to the project in fruitless meetings,” the Houthi committee said in a statement carried by the official Houthi news agency.

Carrying more than 1 million barrels of crude oil and moored off the Yemeni Red Sea coast for almost four decades, the FSO Safer tanker has decayed during the past six years due to lack of regulator maintenance, which ended when the Houthis seized control of the western city of Hodeidah.  

The Houthis have backtracked many times on promises to allow the UN mission to visit the tanker, first accusing the UN mission of including agents from America and Arab coalition member states, and later rejecting the signing of a written security guarantee to protect members of the mission.

The latest move by the Houthis prompted the UN to announce in February that it was delaying its mission indefinitely.

Given the large load of the tanker, experts have long described it as a ticking time bomb that could explode at any time or leak oil, causing a major environmental disaster worse than the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska in 1989.

The Yemeni government has accused the rebels of using the tanker as a “pressure card” to blackmail the government and the international community, and for leverage during peace talks.

Yemen’s Foreign Minister Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak told the Kuwaiti news agency KUNA last week that the UN should take tougher measures against Houthi officials who derail the arrival of the UN mission to the tanker.

“The failure to achieve progress in the (Safer) oil tanker file is due to the failure of the international community and the Security Council to use effective tools of pressure, including sanctions against the Houthi militia and its leadership responsible for the file,” the minister said.

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Arab News

Arab News is Saudi Arabia's first English-language newspaper. It was founded in 1975 by Hisham and Mohammed Ali Hafiz. Today, it is one of 29 publications produced by Saudi Research & Publishing Company (SRPC), a subsidiary of Saudi Research & Marketing Group (SRMG).

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