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ConflictsMiddle East

US to list Yemen's Houthi rebels as 'terrorist organization'

January 11, 2021

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says he will designate Yemen's Iran-backed Houthi rebels as a foreign terror group, a move that aid agencies fear will hamper their work in war-torn Yemen.

Tribesmen loyal to Houthi rebels hold their weapons as they attend a gathering against the agreement
Among those fighting with the Houthis are tribesmen loyal to the cause of the movementImage: Hani Mohammed/AP Photo/picture-alliance

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said late on Sunday that he intended to designate the Iran-backed Houthi movement in Yemen as a "foreign terrorist organization."

Pompeo also said he intended to list three leaders of the Houthi movement, also known as Ansarallah, as Specially Designated Global Terrorists.

"These designations will provide additional tools to confront terrorist activity and terrorism by Ansarallah, a deadly Iran-backed militia group in the Gulf region,'' Pompeo said. "The designations are intended to hold Ansarallah accountable for its terrorist acts, including cross-border attacks threatening civilian populations, infrastructure, and commercial shipping."

Reactions in the region

United Arab Emirates' Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash said: "We welcome the US administration's decision to classify the Houthi militia as a terrorist organization, and to place its leaders on terrorist lists," tweeted Gargash on Monday.

Saudi Arabia said the designation would "neutralize" the Houthi threat.

"It…will force the leaders of the Houthi militia backed by Iran to seriously return to the negotiating table," said the Saudi Foreign Ministry in a statement.

Fears about humanitarian aid

However, diplomats and aid groups have said they fear such a move could threaten peace talks and hamper efforts to deliver aid to what the UN calls the world's largest humanitarian crisis.

A coalition led by Saudi Arabia intervened in Yemen in 2015 to support government forces fighting the Houthis. The Houthis are the de facto authority in the northern part of Yemen, and aid groups rely on the Houthi-controlled port of Hodeidah to deliver help.

The Norwegian Refugee Council, one of the main humanitarian agencies active in Yemen, said on Monday that the designation would "hamstring the ability of aid agencies to respond'' to humanitarian needs in Yemen.

"Yemen's faltering economy will be dealt a further devastating blow,'' said Mohamed Abdi, the Council's director for Yemen. "Getting food and medicine into Yemen — a country 80% dependent on imports — will become even more difficult.''

Pompeo said exceptions could be made to facilitate international aid: "We are planning to put in place measures to reduce their impact on certain humanitarian activity and imports into Yemen," he said.

Final diplomatic shots

It's feared the decision could derail UN-led peace talks as US President-elect Joe Biden prepares to take over from Donald Trump on January 20.

Pompeo was also expected to re-designate Cuba as a "state sponsor of terrorism," according to several administration officials.

Meanwhile, on Saturday, the Secretary of State infuriated China when he declared restrictions on US diplomatic contacts with officials in Taiwan to be null and void. Beijing responded on Monday by saying it was "resolutely opposed" to the US' decision, while Taipei said the move would elevate US-Taiwan relations to "a global partnership." China requires that its trading partners do not engage in formal diplomacy with Taiwan.

The flurry of activity comes as Pompeo and his top aides hurry to take their last desired steps before Trump leaves the White House.

rc/msh (AFP, AP, Reuters, dpa)