WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Marines handed over their remaining weapons to Yemenis at the airport in the capital, Sanaa, on Wednesday before boarding commercial aircraft to leave the country following the closure of the U.S. embassy, the Pentagon said.
The Pentagon said the Marines destroyed heavy weapons in their embassy arsenal, including machine guns, before leaving for the airport but remained armed with smaller weapons until the end to ensure a safe exit from the country.
“The movement from the embassy to the aircraft required armed Marines,” Army Colonel Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, said at a briefing.
The U.S. embassy closure and the evacuation of embassy personnel came after the Houthi militia group - which overran Sanaa in September - formally took power last week. The Shi’ite Muslim group is stridently anti-American and is backed by Iran.
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, estimated that about 100 Marines made up the embassy contingent that left the country.
Asked whether the Marines turned over their weapons to Houthi fighters, Warren said: “It’s unclear, frankly. We believe they turned them over to government officials at the airport, prior to boarding the aircraft.”
“As everyone knows, weapons are generally not authorized on commercial aircraft,” Warren said. He said the Marines were probably carrying handguns and assault rifles until their departure.
Yemen, which borders oil giant Saudi Arabia, had long been at the forefront of the U.S.-led war against al Qaeda. But the long-standing diplomatic alliance between Washington and Sanaa appears to have been suspended with the United States.
France and Britain also closed their embassies on Wednesday due to security fears.
Despite the closure of the U.S. embassy, some American military personnel remain in the country conducting training operations with Yemeni military forces and “retain the capability to conduct counterterrorism operations if required,” Warren said.
Still, U.S. officials have privately acknowledged that the political upheaval has undermined their counterterrorism effort, including the collection of intelligence.
Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by David Storey and Jonathan Oatis