A DESERTED oil tanker described as a “floating bomb” could explode and dump one million barrels of oil into the ocean, experts have warned.
The vessel, named FSO Safer, has been abandoned in the Red Sea off the western coast of Yemen since March 2015 when Houthi rebels took over the region.
Yemen has been crippled by a fractious civil war following the Iran-backed Houthi uprising that swept the pro-Western government into exile in 2015.
A standoff over the Safer and its £64million-worth of oil has meant it has been left to decay – leading to fears it is on the verge of blowing up.
Explosive gasses are thought to have built up in the decrepit tanker’s storage tanks that could rupture any minute, experts said.
The blast would create an “environmental and humanitarian catastrophe” as it sends oil pumping into the sea, according to the UN-recognised Yemeni government.
In a letter to the UN, the government warned that the disaster is “imminent” unless the Houthi allow inspectors on to the ship.
But the Houthi have blocked access to the Safer – demanding they receive assurances that any revenue from the oil goes to them.
Doug Weir, director of the Conflict and Environment Observatory, told The Guardian: “Until a UN technical inspection takes place it is difficult to determine the precise risk that the vessel poses, however the potential for a serious environmental emergency is clear.
“An explosion leading to a spill would have a severe effect on the Red Sea marine environment, and on both biodiversity and livelihoods, an emergency made worse because the ongoing conflict would hamper efforts to control and respond to the pollution it would cause.”
Proxy conflict: What is the civil war in Yemen?
IN January 2015, Houthi rebels – Shiite Muslims backed by Iran – seized control of the much of the country including the capital Sana'a.
President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, backed by Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia – was put under house arrest.
But he managed to escape to safety in Saudi Arabia before returning to recaptured Aden – which he declared the new capital.
His government is still internationally recognised.
A coalition led by Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-majority nations are supporting government forces in the bloody civil war.
Tribal groups seeking autonomy have also become embroiled in the conflict.
And US forces are reported to be in Yemen targeting Al-Qaeda fighters.
Saudi Arabia has been fiercely criticised for launching air strikes which have killed or maimed thousands of civilians.
In August 2018 around 40 schoolboys aged six to 11 were killed when a laser-guided bomb hit their bus in the Houthi-controlled north.
Yemen is the Gulf’s poorest nation and supplies of basic goods and humanitarian aid have been badly affected by the fighting.
Violence has forced farmers to abandon their crops, and hospitals have been overwhelmed by sick, wounded and malnourished children.
In January 2017, a leading UN official said the civilian death toll in the conflict had exceeded 10,000 – with another 40,000 wounded.
It was almost certainly an underestimate, experts warned at the time.
The Yemen government released a chilling video in which it warns the Safer – moored near the port of Ras Isa – is thought to have 1.14m barrels of crude in its tanks.
That is four times the amount of oil released in the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill – widely seen as one of the worst man-made natural disasters in history.
A report for the Atlantic Council think-tank said: “Though a photograph reveals only a ship, known as the Safer, its explosive potential renders it a floating bomb – permanently moored in the Red Sea off Ras Isa.”
Mark Lowcock, the UN humanitarian coordinator, told the UN security council last week: “If the tanker ruptures or explodes, we could see the coastline polluted all along the Red Sea.
“Depending on the time of year and water currents, the spill could reach from Bab-el-Mandeb to the Suez Canal, and potentially as far as the Strait of Hormuz.”
He added: “I leave it to you to imagine the effect of such a disaster on the environment, shipping lanes and the global economy.”
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The Red Sea has a delicate ecosystem that is home to corals and around 600 species of fish – making it vulnerable to pollution.
The Yemen conflict – seen as a proxy war between Iran through the Houthi and Saudi Arabia through the exiled government – has sparked a humanitarian crisis.
Over 14m Yemenis depend on international aid – more than half the country’s 24m population.
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