'The People Will Pay the Price': U.S. Plan to Blacklist Houthis Raises Concerns in Yemen

Pompeo's designation of the Houthis as a terrorist organization could be a matter of 'life or death,' says humanitarian source, while others warn it could polarize the conflict

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June 14, 2020, file photo, medical workers attend to a COVID-19 patient in an intensive care unit at a hospital in Sanaa, Yemen
Medical workers attend to a COVID-19 patient in an intensive care unit at a hospital in Sanaa, Yemen, June 14, 2020,Credit: Hani Mohammed,AP

Global aid groups and ordinary Yemenis fear that a U.S. plan to blacklist Yemen's Houthi movement will only heap more misery on a country blighted by death, disease and poverty due to war.

The majority of the population lives in northern Yemen under the control of the Iran-aligned group, which Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said late on Sunday the State Department intended to designate as a foreign terrorist organization.

In the capital Sanaa, where pictures of Houthi leaders line the streets and members of the movement carry automatic weapons, Ahmad al-Wali frets the conflict will never end.

"Yemenis have suffered six years of war and hunger and this (U.S.) decision will extend the war and will be catastrophic for Yemenis," Wali, a journalist, told Reuters.

Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, told Reuters that measures to ensure aid flows mentioned by Pompeo were not yet clear and said the immediate priority was to enact unambiguous exemptions for aid and commercial supplies.

"Pompeo must detail how the U.S. government will not bring fuel to an already burning crisis by making our aid difficult and dangerous," he said. "Yemen is a country that imports 80 percent of its goods, and where four in five people need some form of humanitarian assistance, so we are talking about life or death."

The United Nations says Yemen is the world's largest humanitarian crisis and has warned that the long-impoverished Arabian peninsula nation was in imminent danger of the worst famine the world has seen for decades.

"This is going to add one more layer of misery," Oxfam America's humanitarian policy lead Scott Paul told Reuters, adding that the best case scenario now was for President-elect Joe Biden to revoke the designation.

He said Pompeo's announcement was likely to "spook" businesses and banks working with Yemeni companies.

Pockets of famine-like conditions have reappeared for the first time in two years and almost half the population is suffering high levels of food insecurity, recent UN data shows, as COVID-19, reduced remittances and underfunding of the 2020 aid response exacerbated matters.

Fears and hopes

Members of the Houthi movement take a selfie near the grave of senior Houthi official Saleh al-Sammad at al-Sabeen Square in Sanaa, Yemen, January 11, 2021Credit: KHALED ABDULLAH/ REUTERS

"The people will pay the price," Hoda, a 19-year-old university student in Sanaa, told Reuters, adding that the designation could strengthen "Houthi obstinacy".

The Houthis have been battling a Saudi-led coalition that intervened in Yemen in March 2015 after the movement ousted the internationally recognized government from power in Sanaa.

The conflict, which has killed more than 100,000 people, has been in military stalemate for years and is widely seen in the region as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Some Yemenis in the southern port city of Aden, interim base of the Saudi-backed government, said the U.S. move was long overdue.

"It will make them (Houthis) submit because it will prevent them from securing funds," state employee Salah Abdullah, 58, told Reuters.

United Nations special envoy Martin Griffiths has been trying to agree a nationwide ceasefire to revive peace negotiations last held in December 2018 to end the war.

A UN official told Reuters that the designation may further polarize positions and present legal liabilities for convening talks that include the Houthis, hindering efforts to resolve the conflict "any time soon".

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