US sanctions 2 Yemeni rebels for cross-border, sea attacks

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Yemeni men walk amid the graves of Houthi fighters who were killed during recent fighting, at a cemetery in Sanaa, Yemen, Tuesday, Mar. 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed)

CAIRO (AP) — The United States imposed sanctions Tuesday on two rebel leaders in Yemen, citing their alleged roles in cross-border attacks on Saudi Arabia and shipping vessels in the Red Sea.

The departments of State and Treasury said Houthi leaders Monsour al-Saadi and Ahmed al-Hamzi were responsible for attacks “impacting Yemeni civilians, bordering nations, and commercial vessels in international waters.” They said the Iran-backed Houthis, also known as Ansrallah, play “a significant role in the conflict in Yemen and exacerbate the dire humanitarian plight of the Yemeni people.”

“The United States has made clear our commitment to promoting accountability for Ansarallah’s malign and aggressive actions, which include exacerbating conflict in Yemen, attacking our partners in the region, kidnapping and torturing civilians, preventing humanitarian aid access, repressing the Yemeni people in areas they control, and orchestrating deadly attacks beyond Yemen’s borders,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said.

The move came just weeks after the Biden administration removed the Houthis from a broader terrorism blacklist in a bid to ease civilian suffering in the impoverished war-torn country. However, since the reversal of that designation, which was made in the waning days of former President Donald Trump’s administration, the Houthis have stepped up attacks in Yemen and on Saudi Arabia.

The Biden administration has also announced it will stop providing offensive military assistance to Saudi Arabia for its campaign in Yemen, prompting critics to claim that Iran and the Houthis are taking advantage of perceived American weakness.

Blinken rejected that criticism, saying the U.S. could help Saudi Arabia defend itself, while also easing Yemen's humanitarian crisis and pushing for a political solution to the war.

“We will ensure Saudi Arabia and our regional partners have the tools they need to defend themselves, including against threats emanating from Yemen that are carried out with weapons and support from Iran," he said. “At the same time, the United States is working diligently at senior levels alongside the United Nations and others to bring an end to this conflict.”

The office of the Houthis' military spokesman declined to comment on the sanctions.

Al-Saadi heads the Houthi naval forces and masterminded attacks on ships in the Red Sea, while al-Hamzi supervised missile and explosive-laden drone attacks in Yemen and on Saudi Arabia, the Treasury Department alleged.

Yemen’s war started in 2014 when the Houthis seized the capital, Sanaa, and much of the country’s north. The Saudi-led, U.S.-backed coalition intervened months later to dislodge the rebels and restore the internationally recognized government. The conflict has killed some 130,000 people and spawned the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.

As Yemen’s war grinds on, Houthi missile and drone attacks on Saudi Arabia have grown commonplace, but only rarely causing damage. At least five civilians were wounded Monday when a Houthi projectile landed in a street in Saudi Arabia’s southern province of Jizan.