By Jonathan Landay and Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States is reviewing "potential terrorist designations" for Yemen's Houthi rebel group in response to its seizure of a cargo ship, White House national security spokesperson John Kirby said on Tuesday.
Kirby's comment was significant because one of the Biden administration's first acts after taking office in January 2021 was revoking terrorist designations of the Houthis over fears the sanctions they carried could worsen Yemen's humanitarian crisis.
The Iran-backed Houthis, who have been sending drones and long-range missiles at Israel in solidarity with Hamas, seized the Galaxy Leader cargo ship on Sunday in the southern Red Sea, describing it as Israeli-owned.
Kirby called the Houthis' seizure of the vessel a "flagrant violation of international law" in which "Iran is complicit."
"In light of this, we have begun a review of potential terrorist designations and we will be considering other options as well with our allies and partners as well," Kirby said at a White House press briefing. He called for the immediate release of the ship and its international crew.
The Bahamas-flagged car carrier is chartered by Japan's Nippon Yusen. It is owned by a firm registered under Isle of Man-headquartered Ray Car Carriers, which is a unit of Tel Aviv-incorporated Ray Shipping, according to LSEG data.
Iran has denied involvement in the seizure of the ship, which the car carrier's owner on Monday said was taken to the Houthi-controlled southern Yemen port of Hodeidah.
Yemen erupted in civil war after the Houthis, members of the Zaydi sect of Shi'ite Islam, seized the capital Sanaa in 2014. A Saudi-led coalition intervened the following year.
Although a U.N.-brokered ceasefire collapsed in October 2022, Yemen has enjoyed relative calm as the Houthis and Saudi Arabia negotiate a settlement.
The country remains the world's worst humanitarian crisis, with some 21.6 million people - about two-thirds of the population - dependent on aid, according to the United Nations.
The Trump administration blacklisted the Houthis a day before its term ended, prompting the United Nations, aid groups and some U.S. lawmakers to express fears that sanctions would disrupt flows of food, fuel and other commodities into Yemen.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Feb. 12, 2021, revoked the designations in "recognition of the dire humanitarian situation in Yemen."
(Reporting By Jonathan Landay and Steve Holland; Editing by Grant McCool)