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The Houthis' campaign has disrupted global commerce © Mena Today
The U.S. government on Wednesday returned the Yemen-based Houthi rebels to a list of terrorist groups, the latest attempt by Washington to stem attacks on international shipping.
Officials said the "Specially Designated Global Terrorist" (SDGT) designation, which hits the Iran-aligned group with harsh sanctions, was aimed at cutting off funding and weapons the Houthis have used to attack or hijack ships in vital Red Sea shipping lanes.
"This designation is an important tool to impede terrorist funding to the Houthis, further restrict their access to financial markets, and hold them accountable for their actions," White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said in a statement.
"If the Houthis cease their attacks in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, the United States will immediately reevaluate this designation."
President Joe Biden's administration also issued "carve outs" aimed at avoiding an impact on Yemen's population, which relies on food imports and humanitarian aid, and pledged to conduct outreach to groups including aid agencies before the designation comes into effect in 30 days.
The Houthis' campaign has disrupted global commerce, stoked fears of inflation and deepened concern that fallout from the Israel-Hamas war could destabilize the Middle East.
Biden last week called the Houthis a "terrorist" group. American and British warplanes, ships and submarines have launched dozens of airstrikes targeting the Houthis, who control the most populous parts of Yemen.
The U.S. military on Tuesday carried out its latest strike against four Houthi anti-ship ballistic missiles, two U.S. officials told Reuters.
On Wednesday, Houthi spokesperson Mohammed Abdulsalam told Reuters the designation would not affect operations, which the group says are in support of the Palestinians and target Israeli ships or ships heading to Israel.
The attacks are part of a broad response to the Gaza conflict by a so-called Axis of Resistance - including the Houthis alongside Palestinian militants Hamas, Lebanon-based Hezbollah and Iraq's Shiite militias - with ties to U.S. adversary Iran.
"We will continue to counter and blunt Iranian malign influence wherever we can. So of course the choice to move away from Iran is now in the hands of the Houthis," said one of three administration officials who briefed reporters ahead of the announcement on condition of anonymity.
A Saudi Arabia-led military coalition intervened in Yemen in 2015, backing government forces fighting the Houthis in a war widely seen as a proxy conflict between U.S. ally Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Former President Donald Trump's administration added the Houthis to two lists designating them as terrorists a day before its term ended. The United Nations, aid groups and some U.S. lawmakers expressed fears that sanctions would disrupt flows of food, fuel and other commodities into Yemen.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Feb. 12, 2021, revoked the designations in "recognition of the dire humanitarian situation in Yemen."
On Wednesday the Houthis were relisted as a SDGT group, but not as a "foreign terrorist organization," which includes stricter prohibitions on providing material support to those on the list and would mean automatic travel bans. U.S. officials said this would make it easier to exempt humanitarian goods from sanctions.
The U.N. describes the humanitarian crisis in Yemen as "severe" with more than 21 million people — two thirds of the population — in need of aid. It says more than 80% of the population struggles to access food, safe drinking water and adequate health services.
The U.S. Treasury Department also issued licenses, effective Feb. 16 authorizing certain transactions involving the Houthis, including transactions related to agricultural commodities, medicine, medical devices, telecommunications and personal remittances. Also authorized were transactions involving the Houthis related to port and airport operations and transactions related to refined petroleum products in Yemen.
"The Houthis must be held accountable for their actions, but it should not be at the expense of Yemeni civilians," Blinken said in a statement.
Reporting by Simon Lewis and Steve Holland
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