An “oil spot” has been observed in a shipping lane west of a decaying tanker off Yemen’s western coast, Saudi Arabia warned the UN Security Council in a letter released Thursday.
The 45-year-old Safer, anchored off a Yemeni port since 2015, has 1.1 million barrels of crude on board, and the UN has warned that a rupture or explosion would have catastrophic environmental and humanitarian consequences.
“An oil spot has been observed 50 kilometres (31 miles) west of the vessel inside the transit area of merchant ships,” Saudi Arabia’s UN Ambassador Abdallah al-Mouallimi wrote in the letter posted on Twitter.
“It is obvious that the tanker has reached a critical state of degradation, and that the situation is a serious threat to all Red Sea countries, particularly Yemen and Saudi Arabia.”
Yemen’s Iran-backed Huthi rebels, who are locked in a five-year conflict with a Saudi-led military coalition, have blocked the United Nations from sending a team of inspectors to assess the vessel.
Citing unnamed experts, Mouallimi’s letter said “a pipeline attached to the vessel is suspected to have been separated from the stabilisers holding it to the bottom and is now floating on the surface of the sea”.
He added that the “dangerous situation must not be left unaddressed”.
However, a Western official expressed scepticism that the oil detected could be from the vessel.
“It is too far, a ‘spot’ not an oil slick — there is no trail — and in the main shipping lanes. It is not from Safer,” he told AFP.
However, there is general agreement that even if the Safer has not breached just yet, a disaster could be just a matter of time.
In July, the UN Security Council issued a statement expressing its “deep alarm at the growing risk” and called on the Huthis to move ahead with granting access to the tanker.
But the rebels are accused of ignoring repeated international pleas to address the crisis.
Western officials say the plight of the tanker has become a bargaining chip, with the Huthis accused of using the threat of disaster for their own gain.
In June, the Huthis said they wanted guarantees the vessel would be repaired and that the value of the oil on board used to pay salaries of their employees.
But the Yemeni government has said the money for the oil should be used for health and humanitarian projects in the shattered country, which is again on the brink of famine after long years of conflict.