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US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Monday he will designate Yemen’s Houthis as a terrorist organisation, drawing condemnation from humanitarian organisations that said it would complicate aid delivery to a country on the brink of famine.
In a statement outlining the decision, Mr Pompeo cited Iranian support for the Houthis and the group’s cross-border attacks on Saudi Arabia.
"The designations are also intended to advance efforts to achieve a peaceful, sovereign, and united Yemen that is both free from Iranian interference and at peace with its neighbours," Mr Pompeo said.
Officially known as Ansar Allah, the Houthis are an Islamic movement from the Zaidi sect of Shiite Islam that emerged in north Yemen in the 1990s. The group seized the capital Sanaa in 2014, forcing President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi into exile. The next year, Saudi Arabia formed an Arab coalition to fight the Iran-backed group on behalf of the exiled government.
While it is not clear what effect the designation will have on the Houthis, British charity Oxfam called it a “counter-productive and dangerous policy that will put innocent lives at risk”.
“This designation will not help to resolve the conflict or provide justice for the violations and abuses committed during the war; it will only escalate the crisis for millions of Yemenis fighting for their survival,” said Oxfam America’s humanitarian policy lead Scott Paul.
In December, the UK pledged £14 million to avert mass starvation in Yemen as the United Nations warned the country was on the brink of famine.
The International Rescue Committee said the decision would negatively impact the already dire humanitarian situation.
“This is pure diplomatic vandalism," said IRC CEO David Miliband. "After four years of a failed war strategy that has created the world’s largest humanitarian catastrophe, the last thing the Yemeni people need is further interruption of aid and economic flows. "
The US said it will put in place measures to reduce the impact of sanctions on humanitarian activity and imports, which Yemen depends on for 80 percent of its food and medicine.
Three of the group’s leaders, Abdul Malik al-Houthi, Abd al-Khaliq Badr al-Din al-Houthi, and Abdullah Yahya al Hakim, will be listed as “specially designated global terrorists".
Mr Pompeo cited a December 30 attack on Aden airport an example of Houthi terrorism. The missile strike targeted government ministers arriving on a plane, killing 27 people, including three staff of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
While the Houthis denied responsibility for the precision strike, “the Yemeni and Saudi governments as well as multiple experts have directly tied this attack to Ansarallah,” Mr Pompeo said.
The designation will be one of Mr Pompeo’s final acts before leaving office on January 20, and follows a series of sanctions related to Iran in recent weeks that may make re-engagement with the Islamic republic more difficult for the incoming administration of Joe Biden, who has promised a return to diplomacy.
Yemen’s internationally recognised government “firmly supports” the designation, its foreign ministry wrote on Twitter.
Houthi official Mohammed Ali al-Houthi said on Twitter that the movement reserved the right to respond to any designation.