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State Department to revoke Houthi terror designation

The State Department plans to revoke the Trump administration’s last-minute decision to designate the Houthi group as a foreign terrorist organization, a department official confirmed to CBS News on Friday. Experts warned the designation would only exacerbate the devastation in Yemen — where a Saudi-backed war against the Iran-backed Houthis has led to one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises — by jeopardizing pathways for humanitarian aid to reach displaced residents.

The move is “due entirely to the humanitarian consequences of this last-minute designation from the prior administration, which the United Nations and humanitarian organizations have since made clear would accelerate the world’s worst humanitarian crisis,” a State Department official told CBS News on Friday.

“This decision has nothing to do with our view of the Houthis and their reprehensible conduct, including attacks against civilians and the kidnapping of American citizens,” the official said.

Yemen has been ravaged for years by a war between the Iran-backed Houthis and the nation’s internationally recognized government. The terror designation, implemented in the final days of the Trump administration, would have prevented the Houthis — which control the territory where about 80% of Yemenis live — from receiving material support from the U.S.

Internally displaced people fill water at Meshqafah Camp on September 23, 2018 in Aden, Yemen. The majority of the camp is made up of families who fled fighting along Yemen’s west coast. / Credit: Andrew Renneisen / Getty Images

Humanitarian groups reacted with outrage, warning that the designation could critically impact their ability to provide aid. While the humanitarian groups would have received an exemption from the restrictions, their private commercial partners may not have, which could have disrupted vital operations.

“Yemen brings in almost all its food via commercial imports. We are concerned that the designation will negatively impact — including through possible ‘over compliance’ by commercial actors — imports of food and other essential commodities just as more Yemenis are starving,” U.N. spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said at the time the designation was announced. “The humanitarian operation – the largest in the world — cannot replace the private sector or compensate for major drops in commercial imports of food and other essential goods.”

The Biden administration previously took action to blunt the impact of the designation, announcing in January that it would authorize almost all financial transactions with the Houthis for the next month in order to ensure the provision of humanitarian aid continued.

Democratic Senator Chris Murphy lauded the news that the designation would be revoked, tweeting, “Reversing the designation is an important decision that will save lives and, combined with the appointment of a Special Envoy, offers hope that President Biden is committed to bringing the war to an end.”

Buildings lay in ruins on September 22, 2018 in Mocha, Yemen. The city was retaken from Houthi rebels in early 2017, part of Yemen's Saudi-led coalition-backed military campaign that has moved west along Yemen's coast. / Credit: Andrew Renneisen / Getty Images
Buildings lay in ruins on September 22, 2018 in Mocha, Yemen. The city was retaken from Houthi rebels in early 2017, part of Yemen’s Saudi-led coalition-backed military campaign that has moved west along Yemen’s coast. / Credit: Andrew Renneisen / Getty Images

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim Risch and House Foreign Affairs Committee Lead Republican Michael McCaul said in a joint statement that while they, too, were concerned about the humanitarian impacts of the terrorist designation, it was crucial for the Biden administration to “ensure the revocation of the Foreign Terrorist Organization designation be paired with significant, targeted pressure on the Houthis.”

“We should not let the Houthis believe they have been given a free pass for their violent actions,” the lawmakers added.

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