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US to declare Yemen’s Houthis a terrorist group, raising fear of starvation

WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will identify the Houthi rebels in Yemen as a foreign terrorist organization, four U.S. officials familiar with the decision said on Sunday, using one of their latest means of force against Saudi Arabia’s nemesis at risk of exacerbating hunger. of the poorest nations in the world.

It is unclear how the terrorist definition will deter Houthi rebels, who have been at war with the Saudi-backed government in Yemen for nearly six years, but some analysts say it does not pose a direct threat to the United States.

Mr Pompeo will announce his appointment last week as Secretary of State and more than a month after meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, who launched a military intervention with Arab allies against the Hutus in 201

5. The campaign killed civilians. it has destroyed infrastructure and exacerbated a humanitarian crisis that has led to millions of hungry Yemenis.

State Department spokesmen did not respond to requests for comment Sunday night, and U.S. officials who confirmed the appointment spoke on condition of anonymity because it had not yet been announced. The upcoming announcement was made earlier Sunday night by Reuters.

The inclusion of the Hutus in the ministry’s list of foreign terrorist organizations means that fighters in the relatively decentralized movement will be cut off from financial support and other material resources that are channeled through US banks or other US institutions.

However, the main patron of the Hutus is Iran, which continues to send support, although discouraged by heavy US economic sanctions, making the effect of the designation on the rebels more symbolic than the burning one.

For the rest of Yemen, however, this designation will almost exacerbate the devastation.

Experts say they will cool humanitarian efforts to donate food and medicine to Hutu-controlled areas in northern and western Yemen, where most of the country’s 30 million people live, for fear the aid will be seized by rebels and used for profit. which can be traced to help organizations. The rebels also control the capital, Sanaa, and parts of the strategic port city of Hudaida, where much of the humanitarian aid from around the world is being unloaded.

The United Nations estimates that about 80 percent of Yemenis depend on food aid, and almost half of all children suffer from stunted growth due to malnutrition. On November 20, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Yemen was “now in imminent danger of the greatest famine the world has seen in decades.”

“I call on all those who have influence to act urgently on these issues in order to avoid a catastrophe, and I also want everyone to avoid any action that could make the already difficult situation worse,” he said. n Guterres. “Otherwise, we risk tragedy not only in the immediate loss of life, but also in consequences that will reverberate indefinitely in the future.”

Some Houthi leaders have already been identified for US sanctions on terrorism. The broader definition of the entire movement has been under consideration by the Trump administration for years.

The fact that Mr Pompeo is betraying him now, in the last days of the administration, is a sign of his determination to maintain his campaign against Iran for as long as possible.

The United States has accused Hussite insurgents of being proxy fighters for Iran, seeking to destabilize neighboring Saudi Arabia by lobbying missiles over its border and striking its oil fields. But the major attack on two state oil facilities on Saudi Aramco in September 2019, which the Hutus said they carried out, seems far more complicated than previous insurgent strikes.

This suggests that Iran is directly involved, according to the Trump administration, despite Tehran’s denials.

“The Trump administration has been able to use its ties with Saudi Arabia over the past four years to move closer to resolving the conflict,” said Ariane Tabatabay, a Middle East member of the German Marshall Fund, a think tank for public policy. a recent interview pending determination. “Instead, the administration chose to reduce the empty checks of Saudi leaders.”

She predicts that the terrorist identification is part of a strategy to force the administration of President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. to maintain a hard line on Iran – or risk the political consequences of “explaining to local critics and regional partners why reversal of sanctions “.

The Trump administration has strongly supported Saudi Arabia and its allies in the war in Yemen, providing intelligence and billions of dollars in weapons to Congress’ objections, despite indiscriminate bombings that killed civilians and other military atrocities that could be war crimes.

In October, rebels released two American hostages and the remains of a third in exchange for prisoners, which also allowed about 240 Hutus to return to Yemen from Oman. The released Hussites include fighters captured by the Saudi-led coalition and officials who had gone to Oman for international peace talks and were not allowed to return home.

Beyond the impending famine, the terrorist definition could also seal the fate of a huge rusty oil tanker docked off the west coast of Yemen.

Compared to a floating bomb, in part because of the flammable accumulations of gas it can carry in its tanks, the decaying ship, the FSO Safer, is not far from the port of Hudaida. If it either explodes or simply disintegrates, it could spill more than 1.1 million barrels of oil into the Red Sea, destroying its ecosystem in a fourfold spill since the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster.

About half a dozen Houthis are on board the ship, along with a small crew of state engineers from the state-owned company that holds the title, said Ian M. Ralby, chief executive of IR Consilium, a marine security consultancy. Terrorist identification could prevent UN negotiators from working with the Husseins as quickly as possible to repair the ship or otherwise neutralize the danger it poses.

“If we don’t want to make Yemen lose a whole generation,” Mr Ralby said, “we have to back down from that name.”

Edward Wong contributed reporting.

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