Yemen's Houthis won't abandon peace efforts over U.S. designation, says chief negotiator

RIYADH (Reuters) – Yemen’s Houthi movement will not walk away from peace talks with the United Nations and Saudi Arabia despite the U.S. decision to designate the Iran-aligned group as a foreign terrorist organisation, the Houthi chief negotiator told Reuters.

FILE PHOTO: Mohamed Abdulsalam, spokesman of the Houthi movement, looks on before a meeting with U.N. special envoy for Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed (not pictured) in Sanaa, Yemen July 14, 2016. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah/File Photo

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said the designation, which will trigger sanctions against the movement and three of its leaders, will come into effect on Jan. 19 at the end of the Trump administration’s term.

“These (peace talks) have nothing to do with the (U.S.) decision which will not limit our movements nor our international relations,” Mohammed Abdulsalam said on Thursday, adding this applied to both U.N. efforts and ceasefire talks with Riyadh.

“We will not stop our efforts to reach peace in Yemen … it is our responsibility to talk, to end the war and the blockade,” said Abdulsalam, who is also a Houthi spokesman.

Earlier on Thursday, three top United Nations officials called on the United States to revoke its move against the Houthis, warning it would push Yemen into a large-scale famine and chill peace efforts.

U.N. envoy Martin Griffiths, who has been leading efforts to restart negotiations last held in December 2018 to end the conflict, told the Security Council the U.S. move could have “a chilling effect” on efforts to bring the parties together and should be revoked on humanitarian grounds.

The United Nations has warned that blacklisting the Houthis, who control the most populous areas of Yemen, could push Yemen into a famine on a scale the world has not seen for decades.

“The decision will have no political or military impact whatsoever, except that it will worsen the humanitarian sitituation in Yemen which is already under blockade,” Abdulsalam said.

The Saudi-led military coalition that intervened in Yemen in 2015 against the Houthis after they ousted the internationally recognised government from power in the capital, Sanaa, has imposed stringent measures on imports into Yemen.

Saudi Arabia, which has come under attack from cross-border Houthi missiles and drones, has welcomed the U.S. move to blacklist the Houthis, saying it would “neutralise” the threat posed by the group by depriving it of arms and funds and would bring it back to the negotiating table.

The designation freezes any U.S.-related assets of the Houthis, bans Americans from doing business with them and makes it a crime to provide support or resources to the movement.

The conflict is widely seen in the region as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Houthis deny being puppets of Tehran and say they are fighting a corrupt system.

Riyadh launched talks with the Houthis last year as it seeks a way out of the costly and unpopular conflict that has killed more than 100,000 people and left 80% of Yemen’s population reliant on aid with millions facing starvation.

Abdulsalam said any agreement on a nationwide ceasefire should include “humanitarian solutions” allowing fuel imports, reopening of airports and ports, and “make room for political talks”.

(This story refiles to change dateline to Riyadh)

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