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Saudis warn of oil slick near decaying tanker, but offer no evidence

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

Saudi Arabia warned the United Nations this week of an oil slick 30 miles off Yemen's western coastline. According to a letter sent by the Saudi ambassador to the U.N. to the head of the Security Council, the spill is from the FSO Safer, a 45-year-old supertanker loaded with more than 1 million barrels of crude oil that has been decaying at sea for years as war paralyzes Yemen

"A pipeline attached to the vessel is suspected to have been separated from the stabilizers holding it to the bottom and is now floating on the surface of the sea," Ambassador Abdallah Al-Mouallimi said in his letter, adding that the tanker had, "reached a critical state of degradation, and that the situation is a serious threat to all Red Sea countries, particularly Yemen and Saudi Arabia."

"This dangerous situation must not be left unaddressed," Al-Mouallimi said in the letter sent to the office of the Security Council President. 

Experts who have been monitoring the situation off Yemen's coast, however, note that the Saudi government appears to have offered little in the way of hard evidence to back its claim, which does put more pressure on a rival.

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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

"The Saudi claims are difficult to verify without a date being specified for the observed oil slick," Doug Weir, director of the U.K.-based Conflict and Environment Observatory, told CBS News. "Given the extremely high stakes involved, and the urgency of an agreement for a U.N. led inspection [of the vessel], it is vital that all parties substantiate such claims with independently verifiable data in order to build trust." 

Mohammed al-Hokaimi, founder of the Yemeni environmental campaign group Holm Akhdar (Green Dream), agrees that the Saudis — who have led a years-long war against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels who hold a significant swath of Yemen, should offer some evidence. 

"The satellite imagery from [European satellite] Sentinel 1 does not show that," he said of the purported oil slick. "It is hard to know what is going on without taking a direct look at the location."

FSO Safer has been permanently moored off the key Yemeni ports of Ras Issa, Saleef, and Hodeidah, through which more than 80% of Yemen's vital humanitarian aid is offloaded. The tanker had been used as an offloading terminal for Yemeni oil exports until 2015, when the civil war stopped virtually all of that activity. FSO Safer and its valuable cargo fell under the control of the Houthi rebels years ago. 

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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 U.N. has repeatedly warned of an impending humanitarian and environmental catastrophe should the oil leak out of the single-hull tanker. 

Last August, Secretary-General António Guterres said the potential oil slick in the Red Sea would not only "severely harm Red Sea ecosystems relied on by 30 million people across the region," but would also force the Hodeidah port to close for months, further exacerbating Yemen's already dire humanitarian crisis by cutting off "millions of people from access to food and other essential commodities."  

But the FSO Safer has become a pawn in a high-stakes game of brinksmanship between Yemen's warring factions. The Saudi-backed government has often accused the rebels of using its control of the tanker as leverage in the standoff, even as "a weapon of war." 

For its part, the Houthi leadership in northern Yemen has accused the Saudi-backed government of imposing unjust sanctions against its people. They accuse the Yemeni government's backers, chiefly Saudi Arabia and the U.S., of refusing to allow the Houthis any financial benefit from the potential sale of the crude on the decaying vessel.

A handout satellite image released July 15, 2020 shows a close up view of FSO Safer oil tanker anchored off the port of Hudaydah
A handout satellite image released July 15, 2020 shows a close up view of FSO Safer oil tanker anchored off the marine terminal of Ras Isa, Yemen June 17, 2020.  HANDOUT/Reuters

"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," Houthi leader Mohammed Ali Al-Houthi tweeted. He said "any solution for the Safer must be" part of a wider peace deal, and include an easing of the Saudi-imposed blockade on the Houthi-controlled part of Yemen.

Earlier this month, the Houthi-run Saba news agency reported that a U.N. technical team had met virtually with officials from the insurgency to "evaluate the maintenance situation of Safer." The report quoted the Houthi regime's deputy foreign minister Hussein Al-Azzi as saying the meeting had been "positive."

Green Dream's al-Hoikaimi told CBS News that there does appear to be "a sign of an agreement to contain the catastrophe," but there is undoubtedly a long way to go to build trust between the Saudi-led coalition and the Iranian-backed rebels.

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