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AL-MUKALLA: The Iran-backed Houthis have agreed to allow the UN to dump the rusting oil tanker Safer in the Red Sea which threatened to cause a major catastrophic disaster, a leader of the terror group has said.

After years of reluctance and broken promises, Mohammed Ali Al-Houthi, head of the Houthi movement’s supreme revolutionary committee, said on Saturday he signed an agreement with the UN that would allow the international body to offload the floating tanker.

“A memorandum of understanding has been signed with the United Nations for the oil tanker Safer,” the Houthi leader said on Twitter.

In New York, Farhan Haq, deputy spokesman for Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, told Arab News that the UN’s official resident in Yemen, David Gressly, is currently discussing the deal with the Houthis in Sanaa: Discussions continue on SAFER. David Gressley is in Sanaa right now, discussing the matter with authorities there.

Anchored with its cargo of more than a million barrels of crude oil off the western Yemeni city of Hodeidah, the four-decade-old floating tanker has not had regular maintenance since early 2015, when the Houthis tightened their grip on the country’s western shores, prompting international engineers to flee the country.

Rust has eaten away at parts of the tanker, allowing seawater to seep into sections of the ship. Local and international organizations have long warned of a major environmental disaster in the Red Sea if the tanker explodes or loses oil.

“The derelict tanker, with its toxic cargo of crude oil, poses a serious threat to communities and the environment of the Red Sea,” Ahmed El-Droubi, campaign manager at Greenpeace MENA, said in January.

Yemeni government officials believe the Houthis are using the tanker as a bargaining chip to extract concessions from the Yemeni government and the international community. Local reports said the Houthis were seeking to replace the decaying tanker with a new one and receive sales of the cargo.

Yemen’s internationally recognized government also demanded that the sales be used to pay government salaries in Houthi-controlled areas, warning that the Houthis would use the money to fund their deadly military operations across the country.

Separately, unidentified gunmen on Saturday abducted two employees of the international medical organization Médecins Sans Frontières in the province of Hadhramaut, in the south-east of the country, the organization and the media said.

In a brief email sent to Arab News, the charity confirmed that it had lost contact with some of its employees in Yemen, without giving further details.

“For the safety of our colleagues, we cannot share further details at this stage,” the organization said.

Local media said the gunmen ambushed the workers in a desert area called Khoushem Al-Ain between the city of Seiyun and Al-Aber.

The Aden-based Al-Ayyam daily reported on Sunday that the gunmen were wearing military uniforms and had set up a fake checkpoint and asked Yemeni and foreign workers to leave their cars.

At around 6 a.m. Saturday, the workers were blindfolded and taken in a van to an unidentified location in the desert, the newspaper said, adding that the Yemeni workers were released six hours later.

Local government officials did not respond to Arab News’ requests for comment.

Last month, suspected al-Qaeda militants abducted five UN staff in Abyan province and are still holding them in a mountainous area in the province’s Moudea district.

Local tribal leaders and social dignitaries have failed to convince the kidnappers to release the workers as they insist on swapping them with militant prisoners in Aden. They also demand a ransom of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

A local official told Arab News last month that militants had threatened to execute the hostages if the military or security services tried to use force to free them.