US diplomats in hasty Yemen evacuation

11th February 2015, Comments 0 comments

The United States, Britain and France moved to close their embassies in Yemen Wednesday over security fears, with the Americans destroying their mission's classified contents and abandoning vehicles at the airport.

The hasty Amrian evacuation came as thousands joined rival demonstrations over a Shiite militia takeover last week widely condemned as a coup.

Long on the front line of the war against Al-Qaeda, Yemen has descended into chaos since the militia, known as Huthis, seized Sanaa in September and ousted the government last week.

The United Nations has demanded the reinstatement of the Western-backed leader Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi -- who resigned last month and is under effective house arrest -- but its efforts to broker a deal have failed so far.

After weeks of internal deliberations and drawing down staff, Washington finally closed the embassy in Sanaa over the "deteriorating security situation," evacuating staff to Muscat late Tuesday on a private Omani jet.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki thanked Oman's sultan for his help as well as Qatar for efforts "to secure a swift departure and safe passage."

She said most of the staff were en route back to Washington from Oman Wednesday.

All the US Marines also left the country, taking commercial flights.

US officials refused to say how many people were evacuated, but there were said to be dozens of Marines in Sanaa -- a larger than usual contingent.

- Marines handed over arms -

Before evacuating, the Marines "destroyed their heavy weapons and crew served weapons, machine guns and such," Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steven Warren told reporters.

"They did leave their personal weapons behind. They turned them over to the local authorities."

Computers, documents, telephones and other sensitive materials were also destroyed, local embassy employees told AFP.

Psaki confirmed "there's a procedure that we follow" when evacuating an embassy, but refused to go into specifics, other than to say "we take every precaution necessary".

A wrecking crane was used to destroy numerous vehicles, while those used to evacuate the embassy staff were seized by militiamen at Sanaa airport.

They included three cars used by Ambassador Matthew Tueller and his staff, and more than 25 vehicles used by the Marines in charge of security, airport sources said.

Militiamen were later seen taking up positions around the embassy.

Psaki said the seizure of the vehicles was "completely unacceptable" and urged the Huthis to "respect international conventions" regarding the embassy site.

Britain also evacuated its diplomats, with a senior official saying: "Regrettably we now judge that our embassy staff and premises are at increased risk."

France called on its 100 or so citizens in Yemen to leave the country and said it would close its embassy from Friday over mounting security fears.

Arab Spring protests in 2011 had raised hopes of democratic reform after more than three decades of iron-fisted rule by veteran strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh.

But Saleh's departure from office in early 2012 left a power vacuum that the Huthis and Al-Qaeda have vied to fill.

In Sanaa, the militiamen fired warning shots and used batons and daggers to disperse hundreds rallying against them, while thousands of their supporters gathered in Change Square.

Washington has been at pains to stress its battle against Al-Qaeda and the jihadists' Yemen branch will continue.

US President Barack Obama vowed on January 25 no let-up in the campaign against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), considered the jihadist network's most dangerous branch.

- US hopes to return -

The State Department is still determining where to base the ambassador and his team now, but they could be housed somewhere in the region.

"We hope to return" to Sanaa, Psaki insisted.

The exodus of Western diplomats came despite assurances from militia leader Abdulmalik al-Huthi that the security situation in the capital was stable.

"Some people are raising concerns among diplomatic missions so that they flee the country," the militia leader said.

"These fears are unfounded. The security situation is stable."

Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdolahian also criticised the "hasty action" of closing the embassies, insisting that the Huthis were fighting "corruption and terrorism".

Huthi, often accused of receiving support from Tehran, has repeatedly portrayed his militia's advance into Sunni-majority areas as a battle against jihadists and called for Western support.

But Hadi loyalists insist only his restoration can prevent a collapse of central authority.


© 2015 AFP

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