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US May Revoke Houthi Terrorist Label If They Stop Red Sea Ship Attacks

(Bloomberg) -- The US said it would consider revoking its recent designation of Yemen’s Houthis as terrorists if the Iran-backed militants cease their shipping attacks in and around the Red Sea.

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“My hope is that we can find diplomatic off-ramps,” Tim Lenderking, President Joe Biden’s special envoy for Yemen, told reporters in an online press briefing on Wednesday. “To find ways to deescalate and allow us to pull back, eventually, the designation and of course to end the military strikes on Houthis’ military capability.”

The comments suggest Washington is once more leaning on diplomacy after a nearly three-month-long campaign of airstrikes against Houthi facilities in Yemen. Those have failed to stop the group’s missile and drone attacks against merchant vessels and warships, though the US says it has managed to degrade the Houthis’ military capabilities.

Asked by Bloomberg News after the briefing if the US was offering the Houthis a quid pro quo to end their attacks on ships in return for revoking the designation, Lenderking said: “We would certainly study that but not assume it’s an automatic thing.”

In mid-January the US State Department announced that it was naming Ansarallah, who are commonly referred to as the Houthis, as a Specially Designated Terrorist Group. That was just after the US and UK began their joint strikes in response to the attacks on shipping.

The Houthis, an Islamist organization, started targeting ships in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden in mid-November, ostensibly to put pressure on Israel to end its war against Hamas in Gaza. Most Western shipping firms are now avoiding the waterways, which normally account for about 30% of global container traffic. Instead, they’re sending vessels around the southern tip of Africa, a much longer route for ships going between Asia and Europe.

The Yemeni militants say they’re determined to continue their attacks. Last month, they killed three crew members on a commodities carrier and sunk another vessel.

Lenderking spoke to reporters from Oman’s capital, Muscat. Oman hosts some of the Houthi leaders and has long been a mediator between the group and Western powers. The US envoy said he held talks with Sayyid Badr Al-Busaidi, Oman’s foreign minister, after conducting discussions with officials in Saudi Arabia the day before.

“We discussed steps to secure Houthis deescalation and renew focus on securing peace for the Yemeni people,” he told reporters.

He said the Houthis’ could “show good faith” and an “intent to deescalate” if they released the 25-member crew of a ship called the Galaxy Leader that they hijacked in November. The car carrier was chartered by Japan’s Nippon Yusen KK.

Lenderking said deescalation by the Houthis could help restart United Nations-mediated peace talks in Yemen which have been frozen since Oct. 7. The country’s been mired in a civil war for a decade, though there’s been a fragile truce since 2022.

The Houthis captured the capital, Sanaa, in 2014 at the start of the war and now control the key Red Sea port of Hodeida.

Saudi Arabia, which initially tried to dislodge the Houthis, wants to implement a ceasefire deal it reached with the group last year.

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