Southern Resistance fighters with a tank destroyed during fighting against Al Houthi militiamen on outskirts of Yemen’s southern port city of Aden. Image Credit: REUTERS

Washington- The Trump administration is considering designating Yemen’s Al Houthi militia as a terrorist organisation, people familiar with the discussions said, as part of a campaign to end that country’s civil war and pile pressure on their ally Iran.

The terrorist designation, which would inject an unpredictable new element into fragile diplomatic efforts to initiate peace talks, has been discussed periodically since at least 2016, according to several of the individuals. But the matter has received renewed examination in recent months as the White House seeks to stake out a tough stance on Iranian-linked groups across the Middle East, they said.

An ally of Iran, the Yemeni rebels known as the Houthis, are also preparing for difficult times, especially as their opponents, a Saudi-led coalition, besieges the port of Hodeida, a major source of income for the group. Image Credit: AP

A formal terrorist designation by the State Department could further isolate the rebels who seized control of Yemen’s capital in late 2014.

The individuals, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal deliberations, said the administration has considered an array of potential actions against the militia, including lesser measures to sanction the group, but said no decision has been made. It was not immediately clear how far deliberations about the terror designation, which is made by the State Department, had progressed.

This came as Al Houthis battled Friday to slow an advance by pro-government forces deeper into Hodeida seeking to recapture the city’s lifeline port, launching fierce barrages of mortar fire and aiming to cut off supply routes, military sources said.

The militia, whose chief has vowed his troops would never surrender despite being vastly outnumbered, shelled government positions in the south of the Red Sea city, government officials said. But despite the “intense attacks”, government forces made fresh advances in eastern sectors of Hodeida.

The rebels, for their part, said their fighters had cut off government supply routes in four sectors of Hodeida province.

On Thursday, after a week of intense battles on the outskirts of the city, government troops entered residential neighbourhoods, using bulldozers to remove concrete road blocks installed by the militia.

Al Houthis have controlled Hodeida since 2014 when they overran the capital Sana’a and then swept though much of the rest of the country, triggering the coalition’s intervention the following year and a devastating war of attrition.

The months-long battle for Hodeida, which has intensified since November 1, has killed a total of 250 combatants this month - 197 Al Houthis and 53 loyalists, according to medical and security sources.

Famine in Yemen

Human rights groups have voiced fears that a protracted battle for the city will also exact heavy civilian casualties and force a halt to vital food shipments.

UN agencies say some 14 million people are at risk of famine in Yemen, which they have described as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. The World Food Programme said Thursday it will nearly double food aid to Yemen to reach 14 million people a month - almost half the population.

Aseverely malnourished seven-year-old Amal Hussein — whose name means "hope" in Arabic, is weighed at the Aslam Health Center in Hajjah, Yemen Image Credit: AP

Earlier this month, US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged a halt to fighting in Yemen, even as forces backed by the coalition move closer to a long-awaited assault on the strategic port city of Hodeida, which Al Houthis control.

Some officials, particularly at the State Department, have resisted moves to designate Al Houthis as a terrorist group because they believe it might make it more difficult for UN negotiators to get peace discussions off the ground. A designation would be seen as a major escalation of US pressure against the group.

UN envoy Martin Griffiths is hoping to bring the Yemeni parties together later this month. His last attempt ended in failure earlier this fall after the rebels refused to travel to Europe for a planned meeting unless certain conditions were met.

A designation would likely result in the freezing of financial assets of A; Houthi movement, which controls government institutions in areas under its control, travel prohibitions and punishments for those believed to providing “material support” to the group.

Officials said the administration is also examining other steps, short of a terrorist designation, it could take to sanction Al Houthis. In 2015, the Obama administration placed individual sanctions on the group’s leader.

This spring, the Trump administration sanctioned five Iranians it alleged helped the Houthis acquire or employ ballistic missiles.

With inputs from AFP