AL-MUKALLA, Yemen: There was renewed anger in Yemen on Sunday after Houthi leaders again refused to allow UN inspectors to board a rusting oil storage vessel moored off the port city of Hodeidah.
Yemeni authorities accused the Houthis of risking an environmental catastrophe in the Red Sea, and called for a tougher UN line against the Iran-backed militias.
“The international community’s lenient approach should stop,” Salem Al-Khanbashi, Yemen’s deputy prime minister, told Arab News on Sunday.
“The Houthis behave arrogantly because of this approach. The international community should pressure the Houthis to either empty the ship or subject it to immediate maintenance.”
The FSO Safer has been moored 7 km off the coast of Yemen since 1988. It fell into Houthi hands in March 2015, when they took control of the coast around Hodeidah. The vessel has been described as “a ticking time bomb” amid fears that the 1.4 million barrels of oil it contains will start to seep out.
The Houthis briefly bowed to pressure in July and agreed to allow a team of UN engineers to visit the ship, before changing their minds and restating previous demands for the revenue from the oil.
They have also demanded that the vessel be inspected by engineers from “neutral” countries such as Germany, Sweden, Russia or China, claiming that UN experts would issue a politically motivated report written in advance.
Al-Khanbashi said his government would agree to authorize the UN to collect and hold revenues from Safer oil sales as a middle ground until any financial dispute was resolved.
He spoke after officials from the UN Yemen envoy’s office and the UN Office for Project Services held a “virtual” meeting with the Houthis to discuss access to the vessel.
The Houthis had been expected to finally agree, but instead they again rejected the request, and claimed that the UN had failed to consider their demands.
Yemeni government officials have long accused the Houthis of using the tanker as leverage to ease economic pressure and extract concessions from the Yemeni government, the Arab coalition and the international community.
Saudi Arabia alerted the UN Security Council last month about an oil spot in the Red Sea west of the tanker, fueling fears of an impending disaster.
Stéphane Dujarric, spokesman for the UN secretary-general, said in August that the UN was working on preventing a major catastrophe, and called for experts to visit the vessel immediately.