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News Analysis: A starving, spilt Yemen embraces for U.S. "terrorist" listing

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A malnourished child lies in bed during medical treatment in Al-Sabeen hospital in Sanaa, Yemen, Dec. 13, 2020. TO GO WITH "5 mln Yemenis "one step away from famine" in 2021: UN" (Xinhua/Mohammed Mohammed)

U.S. designation of Houthi militia as a "foreign terrorist organization" will decide life and death of millions in Yemen, a country that has been suffering war, famine and diseases.

SANAA, Jan. 19 (Xinhua) -- The U.S. designation of the Houthi militia as a "foreign terrorist organization" came into force on Tuesday, one day before U.S. President Donald Trump leaves office.

Almost inconspicuous among a slew of rushed diplomatic and domestic stunts pulled off by the Trump administration, the decision, however, will decide the life and death of millions in Yemen, a country that has been suffered too long in wars.

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A boy holds a bag of broad beans which he just received from a humanitarian group in Hajjah Province, north Yemen, on Dec. 26, 2020. (Xinhua/Mohammed Al-Wafi)

INTERRUPTED HUMANITARIAN AIDS

Humanitarian groups, who are scrambling to deal with the imminent famine across Yemen, now feel confused: after the designation took effect, the U.S. Department of State still has not revealed details on issuing licenses for international organizations to send humanitarian aids into Yemen.

Stephane Dujarric, the spokesman for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, said on Monday that the uncertainty will disrupt "the world's largest aid operation just as famine starts to take hold in the country."

A staggering 80 percent of the country's population, or over 24 million people, require some form of humanitarian assistance and protection, including more than 12 million children, according to data released by the United Nations.

UN Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock also expressed his concern over the famine prospect, saying the "the most urgent priority in Yemen right now is to prevent a massive famine."

Lowcock said humanitarian agencies provide food vouchers or cash to needy Yemenis so they can shop at markets, warning that if the aids were cut off by the designation, millions of Yemenis would starve to death.

Yemen's internationally-recognized government, which welcomed the U.S. designation, said on Monday it will seek to mitigate any impacts the designation has on humanitarian aids.

Prime Minister Maeen Abdulmalik said that his government had formed a committee to handle any effects on the delivery of humanitarian assistance inside Houthi-controlled areas and the remittances of Yemenis abroad.

But a source at the Yemeni government told Xinhua on Tuesday that they had no clue on how to deal with the humanitarian aids in the Houthi-held regions.

"If the United States doesn't know what to do, how can we know?" said the source, who asked to remain anonymous.

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Amputated children sit at a bed out of their hut in Abs District in Hajjah province, Yemen, on July 4, 2020. (Xinhua/Mohammed ALwafi)

COMMERCIAL IMPORTS CRUCIAL

Even if licenses come through for aid agencies, these will not address the main problem, which lies in commercial imports.

Nearly all of Yemen's food, medicine, fuel, and everything else are brought in by commercial importers.

Dujarric pointed out that the long-standing UN Security Council position is that commercial imports to Yemen must be protected and must continue to flow through all ports in the country.

Echoing Dujarric's point of view, Lowcock, the UN's top official on humanitarian affairs, stressed that the commercial imports determine the life and death in Yemen.

Abdul-Salam Mohamad, chairman of Abaad Studies and Research Center, told Xinhua in a recent interview that following the designation, commercial companies will shun dealing with the Houthi authorities in northern Yemen for fear of being involved in supporting a "terrorist" group and this will result in serious economic repercussions.

However, the Houthi militia tried to shrug off the impacts of the designation while fervently condemning it.

Dhaif-Allah Shami, the official spokesman of the unrecognized Houthi government in Sanaa, said on Jan. 11 that "talking about the effects of the American decision on international aid is not to the extent that they depict. We mainly depend on our God and on what our land produces."

But Yemen has not achieved self-sufficiency in food for decades even before the civil war broke up in late 2014, according to the country's statistical authority. Food import has always been crucial for the livelihood of Yemenis as the country is predominately covered by arid deserts.

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Houthi fighters walk in front of the closed U.S. embassy to protest against the U.S. designation of the Houthi militia as "a terrorist organization" in Sanaa, Yemen, Jan. 18, 2021. (Xinhua/Mohammed Mohammed)

ORDINARY YEMENIS BEAR THE BLUNT

Thousands of Yemenis on Monday walked to the streets in the Houthi-controlled capital of Sanaa to protest against the U.S. designation. One of the largest protests was held in front of the closed U.S. embassy, which has become a symbol of "U.S. imperialism" and victory of the "Houthi revolution."

During the protest, people chanted slogans, held posters and banners, and some burnt the national flags of the United States.

"This decision was issued without looking into its impacts. Today, we protest to condemn this decision that targeted all Yemeni people," Ali Hashem, a resident in Sanaa, told Xinhua.

Another protester said that he was angered by the U.S. decision because the blacklisting of the militia is actually an "indiscriminate bombing" on the fragile life of all people here.

"When they (the United States) intercept a food ship, it doesn't necessarily starve Houthi fighters but it surely means my five-year-old daughter will be hungry," said the protester, who preferred not to be named.

"The U.S. officials can't see our suffering here. All they see is a game of powers," he lamented.

For Ali bin Hadi, a retired military expert and observer based in the southern port city of Aden, the prominent Houthi leaders are already under UN sanctions and won't be largely affected by Washington's decision aimed at labeling their rebel group as a "foreign terrorist organization."

The Yemeni observer said that "the Houthi leaders have many alternative ways to insulate themselves from impacts caused by sanctions of the U.S. or the UN, but the ordinary Yemeni people will be largely devastated by such international decisions." 

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