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Rights group accuses Houthis of 'stonewalling' UN access to decaying oil tanker

Human Rights Watch says Houthis are 'recklessly delaying' access to tanker, risking the spilling of more than a million barrels of crude into Red Sea
The Safer oil tanker has been docked 60km (37 miles) north of Yemen's port city of Hodeidah since the late 1980s.
The Safer oil tanker has been docked 60km (37 miles) north of Yemen's port city of Hodeidah since the late 1980s (Reuters/File photo)

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called on Yemen's Houthi rebels to allow the UN access to a decaying oil tanker moored off the country's coast, that risks spilling more than a million barrels of crude into the Red Sea.

The rights group accused the rebel group on Monday of "stonewalling" UN attempts to board the Safer oil tanker and assess the danger it poses.

"Houthi authorities are recklessly delaying UN experts' access to the deteriorating oil tanker that threatens to destroy entire ecosystems and demolish the livelihoods of millions of people already suffering from Yemen's war," said Gerry Simpson, associate crisis and conflict director at HRW.

Simpson called on nearby countries, including Iran, Egypt, Jordan, Oman and Saudi Arabia, to press the Houthis into cooperating, and repeated warnings that an oil leak would have "catastrophic environmental and humanitarian" consequences for millions of Yemenis.

"The UN's top experts are on standby to prevent the worst and should immediately be allowed on board the vessel."

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The Safer has been docked 60km (37 miles) north of Yemen's port city of Hodeidah since the late 1980s, but has not been in use since the Houthis seized the region in 2015.

Amid a lack of maintenance and breakdown of crude inside the vessel, the UN has repeatedly warned that there is a risk of a chemical explosion.

The Safer may hold as many as 1.1m barrels of oil, which could be worth more than $60m.

The UN has warned that an explosion could cause an oil spill that would destroy the Red Sea ecosystem, and along with it the livelihoods of around 30 million people, including 125,000 Yemeni fisherman. It could also destroy agrarian land used by 3 million farmers and also rupture a shipping route that accounts for roughly 10 percent of world trade.

The spill would also shut down Hodeidah and Saleef ports for up to six months, seriously undermining Yemen's ability to import 90 percent of its food and other essential aid and commercial commodities.

Yemen's internationally recognised government has been fighting the Houthi movement since 2015, when the rebels took over the country's capital Sanaa.

The ongoing war has devastated Yemen, with about 80 percent of the population - 24 million people - requiring some form of humanitarian or protective assistance, according to UNOCHA.