Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said the United States will designate Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels as a foreign terrorist organization, a move aid groups have warned could hamstring attempts to deal with what many consider to be the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
The designation will take effect on Jan. 19, the day before President-elect Joe Biden takes office, Pompeo said in a statement late Sunday. He said he also intends to designate three of the group’s leaders Abdul Malik al-Houthi, Abd al-Khaliq Badr al-Din al-Houthi, and Abdullah Yahya al Hakim as specially designated global terrorists.
“These designations will provide additional tools to confront terrorist activity and terrorism by Ansarallah,” he said, referring to the group also known as the Houthis. “The designations are intended to hold Ansarallah accountable for its terrorist acts, including cross-border attacks threatening civilian populations, infrastructure, and commercial shipping.”
The Trump administration had been locked in an internal debate about whether to formally designate the Houthi rebels as a terrorist group, as aid groups and United Nations officials warned the move could worsen what is already the world’s worst humanitarian crisis in Yemen, four people familiar with the discussions told NBC News last month.
After six-years of grinding conflict pitting the Houthi rebels against the internationally-recognized Yemeni government, 80 percent of Yemen’s population of more than 29 million people is in need of humanitarian assistance and experts have declared famine-like conditions for almost 17,000 people, according to the International Rescue Committee.
Since 2015, more than 112,000 people are estimated to have died as a direct result of the violence.
The Houthi group is the de facto authority in northern Yemen and aid agencies have to work with it to deliver assistance, according to Reuters.
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Pompeo said Sunday that the U.S. recognized concerns that the designations will have an impact on the humanitarian situation in the war-torn country and said it planned to put in place measures to reduce their impact on certain humanitarian activity and imports into Yemen.
The measures will include the issuance of special licenses by the Treasury to allow U.S. assistance to continue in Yemen, as well as the activities of certain international and non-governmental organizations such as the United Nations, Pompeo said. Critical imports such as food and medicine will also be covered by the licenses, he added.
But a leading aid organizations warned that the designation would deal a further “devastating blow” to a country already in the middle of a “full-blown” humanitarian catastrophe.
“Getting food and medicine into Yemen — a country 80 percent dependent on imports — will become even more difficult,” the Norwegian Refugee Council, one of the main humanitarian agencies active in Yemen, said in a statement.
The civil war in Yemen started in 2014 when the Houthi rebels took control of the capital Sanaa. The rebels are backed by Tehran, while a Saudi-led military coalition intervened on behalf of the government in 2015, turning the conflict into a proxy-war between regional foes Iran and Saudi Arabia as well as domestic conflict.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.