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US moves to revoke terror designation of Yemen's Houthis

State department cites humanitarian reasons as it begins process to reverse action by outgoing Trump administration
The Houthis have welcomed Biden's announcement to withdraw US support for the Saudi-led offensive (AFP)

The US has moved to delist Yemen's Houthi rebels as a terrorist organisation, removing a block that humanitarian groups said jeopardised crucial aid as the country's warring sides cautiously welcomed a push for peace by President Joe Biden.

The grinding six-year war in Yemen has killed tens of thousands and displaced millions, triggering what the United Nations calls the world's worst humanitarian disaster.

A State Department spokesperson said on Friday it had "formally notified Congress" of Secretary of State Antony Blinken's intent to revoke the terrorist designation.

The move, which will take effect shortly, comes a day after Biden announced an end to US support for the Saudi-led offensive operations in Yemen.

"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 spokesperson said.

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"Our action is due entirely to the humanitarian consequences of this last-minute designation from the prior administration," they said, adding rhat the US remained committed to helping Saudi Arabia defend its territory against attacks by the rebels.

Blinken's predecessor, Mike Pompeo, announced the designation days before leaving office last month, pointing to the Houthis' links to Iran, an arch-enemy of Trump, and a deadly attack on the airport in Yemen's second city of Aden in December.

Aid groups say they have no choice but to deal with the Houthis, who are the de facto government in much of Yemen, and that the terrorist designation would put them at risk of prosecution in the United States.

According to the UN, more than three million people have been displaced and close to 80 percent of Yemen's population of 29 million people need of some form of aid for survival.

Biden had on Thursday announced the withdrawal of US support for the Saudi-led offensive in his first major foreign policy speech since replacing Donald Trump. 

The approach was welcomed by the Houthis and Yemen's internationally recognised government, which is backed by a Saudi-led military coalition.

'Off to a good start'

Abdulelah Hajar, an adviser to the head of the supreme political council, a Houthi executive body, told AFP that "cancelling the designation is an advanced step towards peace".

Hajar said the new US administration had "got off to a good start", but warned the credibility of the steps "will not be achieved unless they are proven on the ground and felt by the Yemeni people - by lifting the siege and stopping the war".

He also said the newly appointed US special envoy to Yemen, Timothy Lenderking, must "meet all parties", warning that if the Houthis were excluded, "there will be no step towards peace".

Iran's Foreign Ministry said on Saturday that a new US stand on the Yemen war could be a "step towards correcting past mistakes".

"Stopping support … for the Saudi coalition, if not a political manoeuvre, could be a step towards correcting past mistakes," Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh was quoted as saying by state media.

Saudi Arabia, which has led a military intervention against the Houthis since 2015, reacted to the US move by reasserting its commitment to a political solution in Yemen.

The kingdom welcomed Biden's "commitment to cooperate with the kingdom to defend its sovereignty and counter threats against it," according to the official Saudi Press Agency.