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A possible oil leak in the Red Sea adds to Yemen’s crises

FOR FIVE years the Safer, a tanker, has been slowly corroding in the Red Sea, a time-bomb waiting to go off. Or perhaps it already has. Built in 1976, sent to Yemen in 1988, it has served ever since as a floating storage unit and export terminal. It sits off the coast of Ras Issa at the terminus of a 430km oil pipeline (see map). Since 2015 the ship and its cargo, more than 1.1m barrels of oil, have been in the hands of the Houthis, a Shia rebel group fighting a Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. On September 24th the Saudi ambassador to the United Nations warned that an “oil slick” had been spotted 50km west of the vessel.

Diplomats, shipping experts and environmentalists had warned for years that the ship was a danger. Sea water is doing what sea water does, eating away at its hull and tanks, a process that happens faster than normal in the salty Red Sea. Photos taken on board last year showed leaking pipes and rusted seals; there are fears the whole thing may explode.

But the Houthis have blocked any maintenance work. The vessel, in their imagination, is a useful obstacle to a Saudi-led assault on Hodeida, the nearby port that handles most of Yemen’s imports. Never mind that a spill would be an environmental disaster: the Safer’s cargo is four times that of the...

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