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A supertanker full of crude oil decaying amid Yemen's civil war could blow up

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A file photo shows the FSO Safer supertanker permanently anchored off Yemen's Red Sea coast, west of Hodeida.  HANDOUT

Amman, Jordan — Yemen's raging civil war has created a ticking time bomb just off the country's Red Sea coast. The FSO Safer, a 45-year-old supertanker loaded with more than 1 million barrels of crude oil has been caught between the warring sides and left to decay.

Activists and officials warn that the Safer could hemorrhage its cargo into the sea at any time, with devastating consequences for nature and the already-beleaguered people of Yemen.

Yemen's government says the Safer is in "bad and deteriorating" condition. The single-hulled vessel was part of Yemen's national oil infrastructure before the war started. Permanently anchored off the vital ports of Ras Issa, Saleef, and Hodeidah, it was used as an offloading terminal for Yemeni oil exports until the war stopped virtually all of that activity. Since then, these ports have become the gateway for about 85% of the vital, but still insufficient humanitarian aid coming into war-torn Yemen.

In 2015, along with the nearby coastline, the Safer fell under the control of Yemen's Iranian-back Houthi rebels, who now hold much of country's north, including the capital city of Sanaa. Since then the majority of the crew of the state-owned tanker has left and access barred by the Houthis.

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The FSO Safer supertanker, loaded with 1.1 million barrels of Yemeni crude oil, has gone largely unmaintained since Houthi rebels seized control of the vessel from the Yemeni state-run oil company in 2015. HANDOUT

Without routine maintenance to prevent corrosion and keep vital systems running over the last five years, the supertanker is starting to fall apart.

An "imminent" catastrophe

Last week, The Associated Press quoted an official with Yemen's state-run oil company as saying seawater had entered the engine room, forcing the shutdown of engines used, among other things, to keep inert gas pumping through the empty space in the oil storage tanks. That gas maintains pressure in the tanks to prevent the build-up of oxygen or other potentially flammable gases. The fact that inert gas is no longer being pumped into the tanks creates a serious risk of explosion.

Photos posted online by the Yemeni environmental campaign group Holm Akhdar (Green Dream) show various parts of the vessel severely corroded, which could lead to significant leaks even without an explosion.

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Corroded pipework is seen on the FSO Safer supertanker, off the coast of Yemen, in a photo provided by Yemeni environmental campaign group Holm Akhdar.  Handout/Holm Akhdar

"The hull of the vessel has been deteriorating and one of its pipes has been punctured," the group's founder Mohammed al-Hokaimi told CBS News. He warned of an "increased risk of crude oil spilling from storage tanks while parties to the conflict continue to show indifference to this serious issue."

The Yemeni government has said that if the tanker ruptures, it could create an oil spill four times larger than the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster. In a letter to the United Nations, the government said the vessel posed an "imminent environmental and humanitarian catastrophe in the Red Sea."

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Corroded pipes, part of a boiler system, are seen below deck on the FSO Safer supertanker, permanently anchored off the coast of Yemen in the Red Sea, in an image provided by environmental group Holm Akhdar.  Handout/Holm Akhdar

In a tweet earlier this month, calling on the Houthis to allow an international team to access the vessel, Britain's Ambassador to Yemen drew a comparison to a widely reported fuel leak in Russia.

"20,000 tonnes of fuel in Russia is causing massive environmental damage in Siberia. The SAFER tanker in Yemen has 150,000 tonnes of crude which would devastate the Red Sea and its coast if it leaked," warned Ambassador Michael Aron.

Al-Hokaimi, of the environmental group, estimates that if the Safer ruptures, the resulting spill would kill off 850,000 tons of fish, put 1.5 million migratory birds at risk and put more than 125,000 Yemeni fishermen out of work.

Leveraging a disaster

Along with the Rea Sea environment, the tanker's valuable cargo is also at stake. The U.N. and the Yemeni government want access to the vessel, while the cash-strapped Houthi rebels want guarantees they'll be able to control the revenue from the sale of the oil, estimated at $45 million.

Just like in the wider war, the two sides accuse each other of refusing to make any concessions to avert disaster. The Houthis accuse the Yemeni government's backers, chiefly Saudi Arabia and the U.S., of refusing to allow the Houthis any benefit from the sale of the crude.

Coronavirus threatens war-torn Yemen 05:49

Houthi leader Mohammed Ali Al-Houthi vented his anger in a recent Twitter post: "The U.S., British, Saudis, Emiratis, and their coalition are mournful that a possible leak from SAFER would kill the sea creatures, while they are killing human beings in Yemen."

He asked sarcastically why "the U.S. State Department is worried about Yemeni shrimp," asking if "the life of sea creatures is more important than the lives of Yemeni people."

In a Twitter exchange with the British Ambassador over the weekend, al-Houthi said "any solution for the Safer must be" part of a wider peace deal, and include an easing of the Saudi-imposed blockade on Houthi-controlled Yemen.

"It's clear that both sides have been politicizing this issue. I think the Houthis would like to use this as leverage to lift the embargo on their exports, because they need the money," Doug Weir, Director at the U.K.-based Conflict and Environment Observatory told CBS News. "From the Yemeni and the Saudi coalition side, they see this as an example of poor, corrupt governance from the Houthis, and also genuine concerns around the Red Sea environment."

"If the Houthis are intent on state-building and becoming a state, then that comes with certain responsibilities for protecting the environment," noted Weir, who stressed the urgency of the matter in a new series of tweets on Monday, mounting pressure on the Houthis.

"In a rational world, cooperation over the vessel would be used as a confidence-building measure," he suggested. "The situation is too serious and too urgent for the SAFER's fate, and that of the Red Sea, to be part of a wider deal at an unspecified point in the future."

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