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All 'options open': Trump administration mulls 'terror' designation for Yemen's Houthis

US national security advisor Robert O'Brien says Washington continues to consider blacklisting the rebel group even as he acknowledges Trump's final days
A fighter loyal to Yemen's Houthi rebels stands guard next to a stack of bills in Sanaa on 24 September during ceremony to collect cash, food and other donations for fighters (AFP/File photo)

The Trump administration is keeping all its "options open" when it comes to Yemen's Houthi rebels, the country's national security advisor said when asked about reports that the outgoing administration could slap the group with a last-minute terror designation.

Speaking to reporters during a visit to the Philippines on Monday, Robert O'Brien criticised the Houthi movement for failing to engage in a "good-faith peace process" to end the conflict with Saudi-backed government forces, which has raged since 2014. 

Washington considers the group, which controls northern Yemen and its most populated areas, an Iranian proxy force.

'President Trump is still the president of the United States for the next 50 days and this will be something that is certainly on the agenda and we will have to see how that plays out'

- Robert O'Brien, US national security advisor

As the Trump administration has made the isolation of Iran a keystone of its foreign policy, the Houthi movement has found itself in the centre of the administration's last considerations in the final weeks ahead of President-elect Joe Biden's late January takeover. 

O'Brien said Washington was monitoring the situation "very closely", in response to a question on whether the US would designate the Houthis a "terrorist organisation".

"We are constantly considering whether and who and how we should designate terrorist organisations," O'Brien said. 

"President Trump is still the president of the United States for the next 50 days and this will be something that is certainly on the agenda and we will have to see how that plays out," he added in a rare acknowledgement of President Trump's election loss.  

"Right now we encourage the Houthis to expel the Iranians, to stop attacking neighbours and stop attacking people within Yemen and engage in a good-faith peace process with the other stakeholders in Yemen," he said.

'Cause even greater suffering'

The Trump administration began preparing plans to blacklist the group earlier this month, as part of efforts to place additional pressure on Tehran, Foreign Policy reported.

The rebel group controls the capital Sanaa and much of the north after a grinding five-year war with government forces that has created the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

The government is supported by a Saudi-led coalition, assisted by western powers including the US, despite congressional pressure to remove Washington from the equation. 

The option to designate the group a foreign terrorist organisation has come up multiple times since 2016, ultimately ending with the administration not doing so out of fear it would harm the UN-led peace process.

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The Houthis have reacted angrily to the prospect of the US designation, saying Trump has no right to make the ruling after failing to win a second term, AFP reported. 

The possibility has also alarmed humanitarian groups who say it could cripple aid delivery and tip the country further into famine.

Eight members of Congress sent a letter to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday urging him to reconsider the designation.

"The heads of top humanitarian aid organizations - Oxfam America, Save the Children, Mercy Corps, CARE USA, and [the] International Rescue Committee - warned that 'a designation of Ansar Allah could cause even greater suffering, given the number of people under its jurisdiction, its control over state institutions, and the already frightening levels of food insecurity and humanitarian need across Yemen'," the letter read.

"The US must be at the forefront of encouraging contributions to the international humanitarian response in Yemen, not disincentivising aid donors with the threat of additional harmful sanctions," it added.

The Trump administration halted $73m in aid in March over fears that the Houthi movement was seizing control of the funds.