U.N. bid to avert oil spill off Yemen uncertain as Houthis mull 'review'

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Yemen’s Houthi group has advised the United Nations to pause preparations to deploy a team to assess a decaying oil tanker threatening to spill 1.1 million barrels of crude oil off the war-torn country’s coast, a U.N. spokesman said on Tuesday.

FILE PHOTO: The United Nations logo is seen on a window in an empty hallway at United Nations headquarters during the 75th annual U.N. General Assembly high-level debate, which is being held mostly virtually due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in New York, U.S., September 21, 2020. REUTERS/Mike Segar

The tanker Safer has been stranded off Yemen’s Red Sea oil terminal of Ras Issa for more than five years, and U.N. officials have warned it could spill four times as much oil as the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster off Alaska.

Houthi authorities gave long-awaited approval in November for a visit to assess the tanker. A U.N. team, which includes a private company contracted by the world body to do the work, was aiming to travel to the tanker early next month.

But U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said that time line was now uncertain amid U.N. concerns about signals from the Houthis that they are considering a “review” of their formal approval of the tanker mission.

“Houthi officials have advised the U.N. to pause certain preparations pending the outcome of such process, which would create further delays to the mission,” he said in a statement.

He said the United Nations had so far spent $3.35 million on preparing for the mission. The world body also has to lease a technically equipped vessel, but needs a letter from the Houthis with security assurances.

“We regret that, to date, we have not received a response to our multiple requests for this letter, the lack of which would increase the cost of the mission by hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Dujarric said.

Houthi-run Al Masirah TV last week quoted a senior Houthi official as saying the United Nations had made additional requests that had not been part of an agreed framework.

“Their new requests are related to their financial relationship with insurance firms and we will not get involved in matters that do not concern us,” the Houthi official said.

Last month, former U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration designated the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization. The United Nations is also reviewing whether that could affect the tanker mission.

A Saudi Arabia-led military coalition intervened in Yemen in 2015, backing government forces fighting the Houthis. U.N. officials are trying to revive peace talks to end the war as the country’s suffering is also worsened by an economic crisis, currency collapse and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Additional reporting by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Peter Cooney