DUBAI (Reuters) - The United Nations said on Friday it had completed the removal of more than 1 million barrels of oil from a decaying supertanker off Yemen's Red Sea coast, averting a potential environmental disaster.
U.N. officials and activists have been warning for years that the entire Red Sea coastline was at risk, as the rusting Safer tanker could have ruptured or exploded, spilling four times as much oil as the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster off Alaska.
The war in Yemen caused the suspension of maintenance operations on the Safer in 2015. The ship is used for storage and has been moored off Yemen for more than 30 years.
"It is a major moment of having averted a potentially catastrophic disaster," said Achim Steiner, administrator of the U.N. Development Programme, which coordinated complex efforts to remove the oil from the ship.
Salvage crews operated for 18 days in a coastal conflict zone riddled with sea mines, amid high summer temperatures and strong currents, to offload the oil from the vessel.
Steiner said the U.N. raised more than $120 million for the operation, which required the purchase of a second tanker for the offloaded crude, aircraft waiting on standby to release chemicals to dissipate the oil in case of a spill and policies with more than dozen insurers to underwrite the operation.
"It was literally until the last minutes that we looked at this operation as one that had to ensure the highest degree of preparedness of risk mitigation," Steiner said.
"The best end to the story will be when that oil actually is sold and leaves the region altogether."
There is no agreement on how such a transaction will proceed and U.N. officials in Yemen will soon begin negotiations with the country's conflicting groups in an attempt to agree on how to share the proceeds of a sale of the oil, which is majority owned by Yemeni state firm SEPOC.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a social media post that "an environmental & humanitarian catastrophe" had been prevented and urged donors to help finish the project.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken praised the United Nations and Yemeni parties who "who came together to avert an environmental, economic, and humanitarian disaster," saying the work was a model for cooperation on international disaster prevention.
(Reporting by Andrew Mills, Imad Creidi and Michelle Nichols; Writing by Andrew Mills; Editing by Ismail Shakil, Sharon Singleton and Cynthia Osterman)