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Leader: Houthi Rebels Open to Relations With US

A Supporter of Houthi Shiites displays a poster of Abdel-Malek al-Houthi, the leader of Yemen's Shiite rebels, on his jacket during a rally to mark the third anniversary of the Houthis' takeover of the Yemeni capital, in Sanaa, Yemen, Sept. 21, 2017.

More than four years after a brutal civil war in Yemen that has claimed thousands of lives and has pushed millions to the brink of starvation, Houthi rebels are ready to establish relations with the United States, an official responsible for the group's foreign affairs told VOA.

The conflict in Yemen started in 2015 and escalated into a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia when a Saudi-led coalition intervened to help the internationally recognized government roll back Iran-aligned Houthi rebels. The United States also became involved by providing the Saudi-led campaign aircraft refueling and some intelligence support.

In an exclusive interview with the Voice of America, Hisham Sharaf Abdullah, the foreign minister of the Houthis' self-proclaimed National Salvation Government, said the group wishes to build relations with the U.S. as the warring sides seek to find a solution in the U.N.-led peace talks.

"Surely we are interested in having a good relationship with the United States. Everyone should know that," Abdullah told VOA Thursday in a phone interview from the capital Sanaa.

US congressional resolution

U.S. lawmakers last week voted on a resolution forcing an end to U.S. military support for the Saudi-led campaign. In turn, the White House condemned the measure and warned it would harm U.S. relations with its allies in the region, including Saudi Arabia.

Abdullah criticized U.S. President Donald Trump's administration for supporting the Saudi-led coalition, blaming the Saudi government for lack of a peace resolution in Yemen.

"When we speak about the U.S., we don't only speak about the administration. We speak about the big U.S., the big continent of a political system, and the people of the U.S., their Congress and their Senate," Abdullah said.

Iranian support

The Trump administration has been considering whether to designate Yemen's Houthi rebels a terrorist organization due to its close ties with Iran, according to a report by The Washington Post last year.

Officials in Washington accuse Houthis of getting direct military and financial support from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iran's elite force that will be labeled a terrorist organization by the U.S., effective Monday.

But Houthi leaders are denying those allegations, maintaining that their relations with Tehran are diplomatic to gain humanitarian support for affected civilians in Yemen.

"There is no military cooperation with Iran at all. Iran is trying to keep a good relationship with us for the sake of Yemeni people," said Abdullah, adding the Houthi group is depending on stockpiles of old weapons and rejecting claims that it is using Iranian-made missiles to reach the Saudi soil.

The Houthi movement consists mostly of the Shiite sect known as the Zaidis, which account for nearly 35 percent of Yemen's nearly 30 million population. The group has accused the majority Sunni sect of marginalization in the past.

Since the 2015 conflict, the Houthis have transformed themselves from an isolated group in northeastern governorate of Saada to a local de facto state ruling a bulk of Yemen's key areas in the north, including the capital Sanaa.

Their control has come at a heavy cost, however, with tens of thousands killed on both sides of the conflict and has caused what the United Nations said is the world's most urgent humanitarian crisis.

Pre-famine state

The U.N. warns that two-thirds of all districts in the country are in a "pre-famine" state and an estimated 80 percent of the population are in need of some form of humanitarian assistance.

A U.N.-sponsored initiative began in early December, when representatives from the warring sides came face-to-face in Sweden to discuss a peace process and agreed on a truce. But the effort has remained fragile as violence continues and each side blames the other for exploiting the process to prepare for war.

Human right activists, meanwhile, are raising concerns over human rights violations by Houthis, including allegations of arbitrary detentions, torture and kidnapping.

Baraa Shiban, a Middle East and North Africa case worker with Reprieve, a U.K.-based nonprofit organization, and an adviser to the Yemeni Coalition for Human Rights, told VOA that Houthis do so with the aim to spread fear to intimidate journalists and activists from protesting against them in the future.

"Activists were detained and then released, but all of them were transferred to the hospital in Sanaa, we saw signs of literally torture and severe beating," Shiban said. "One of the activist died one day after being released."

VOA could not independently verify Shiban's claims.

Abdullah, of the Houthi movement, downplayed these allegations and claimed the group is working with rights organizations to address them.

"We asked human rights organizations to write to us about all allegations against Yemenis, they are having some talks with us, and we are trying to resolve these issues," Abdullah said.

Also, there are accusations that Houthis are blocking access to the delivery of much-needed food and medicine to civilians in Yemen.

Abdullah stated that of all assistance coming to Yemen, his self-proclaimed government only gets 30% of the total assistance.

"Everyone in America and in Europe should know that our government has only 30% of the assistance, the rest is being managed by the World Food Program (WFP) and nongovernmental organization and we don't know what the hell they are doing," Abdullah said. "When they have a problem, they throw it on us."

Despite the setbacks in peace talks, Abdullah expressed optimism that a compromise could be reached.

"There are many who are profiting from this conflict and don't want this war to end. I believe both faith and confidence between all parties to the conflict are crucial and can lead to a successful peace talk," he said.