Smoke billows from the Aden airport on December 30, in an attack blamed on Yemen's Huthis

Sanaa (AFP) - Yemen’s Huthis were defiant Monday after the United States said it will designate the Iran-backed rebels as terrorists, a last-ditch move under President Donald Trump that aid groups warned could tip the country into famine.

Unless Congress blocks the decision, the Huthis will be blacklisted on January 19 – one day before the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden, whose aides had hoped to mount a fresh push to end Yemen’s devastating six-year-old war.

Huthi political commander Mohamed Ali al-Huthi condemned the US move in a tweet and said they had “the right to respond”.

“The Yemeni people don’t care about any designation from Trump’s administration, as it is a partner in killing Yemenis and starving them.”

Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh also condemned the US announcement and charged that “it’s likely the bankrupt US government will do further damage to its reputation” in Trump’s final days in office.

The decision announced by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo could complicate Biden’s promised efforts to restart diplomacy with Iran and to reassess Washington’s alliance with Saudi Arabia, which has led a bloody offensive in its impoverished southern neighbour.

The designation aims to hold the rebel movement “accountable for its terrorist acts, including cross-border attacks threatening civilian populations, infrastructure and commercial shipping,” Pompeo said Sunday.

A Yemeni man holds up pictures of Huthi rebel leader Abdul Malik al-Huthi (left) and chief of the Shiite Muslim movement Hezbollah Hassan Nasrallah

The Huthis have “led a brutal campaign that has killed many people, continues to destabilise the region and denies Yemenis a peaceful solution to the conflict in their country”.

- ‘Diplomatic vandalism’ -

The Yemeni government said the Huthis deserved the designation for “continuous efforts to prolong the conflict and cause the world’s worst humanitarian crisis”, while Riyadh said the move would help put “an end to the activities” of the rebels.

Pompeo also designated as terrorists three leaders of the movement, including their chief Abdul Malik al-Huthi.

He pointed to a December 30 attack on an airport in Yemen’s second city Aden, which killed 26 people and was blamed by the Saudi-backed government on the Huthis.

The Huthis control the capital Sanaa and much of the north, and are already under US sanctions.

A displaced Yemeni eight-year-old girl, Samar Ali Ahmed, who weighs nine and a half kilograms and suffers from acute malnutrition, in northern Yemen

The designation is expected to scare away outside actors from many transactions with Huthi authorities for fear of US prosecution.

Aid groups have warned Pompeo against the blacklisting, saying they have no option but to deal with what is the de facto government in northern Yemen.

“This is pure diplomatic vandalism,” David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee, said in a statement. “The last thing the Yemeni people need is further interruption of aid and economic flows.”

The Norwegian Refugee Council said the US must ensure sanctions do not block aid from entering “a country already in the middle of a full-blown humanitarian catastrophe”.

- Famine warnings -

Meanwhile, Save the Children warned the measures come as data shows “millions of people in the country are edging closer to famine,” and the designation could “threaten the supply of lifesaving food, fuel and medicine.”

Trump’s administration has ramped up pressure on Iran, hoping to make it more difficult for Biden to ease sanctions as he seeks a return to a nuclear deal.

US officials and analysts say Iran has armed the Huthis, but some experts question the extent of cooperation and see Tehran primarily as interested in bogging down Saudi Arabia, whose brutal air campaign has included strikes on civilian targets.

Tens of thousands of people, mostly civilians, have been killed and millions displaced in Yemen’s war. Most of the nation is dependent on some form of aid to survive.

Analysts warn of disastrous consequences after the UN World Food Programme said in December that malnutrition had reached record levels.

Peter Salisbury, Yemen analyst at the International Crisis Group, told AFP the designation will “likely badly damage” trade and aid inflows.

“This is more or less unprecedented in scale, in terms of the territory and number of people under the control of the designated entity,” he said.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo glances to Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud at the State Department in October 2020

Under US law, Congress has seven days in which it can object to a designation of a foreign terrorist group.

But it will likely be focused on other issues, as the House of Representatives looks at impeaching Trump for a second time after he encouraged a mob that stormed the Capitol last week to disrupt a session that certified Biden’s election win.

Lawmakers from Biden’s Democratic Party had told Pompeo the designation would jeopardise both aid and peace efforts.

In an open letter to Pompeo last month, retired US diplomats, including six former ambassadors to Yemen, also doubted that the Huthis met the legal definition of a terrorist group.

“Designating the Huthi movement will be perceived as politically motivated and will undermine the credibility of US counterterrorism programs and policies,” they wrote.