March 3, 2015 / 5:18 PM / 4 years ago

U.S. envoy to Yemen to work from Jeddah after embassy's closure

MONTREUX, Switzerland (Reuters) - The U.S. ambassador to Yemen will track Yemeni events from Jeddah in Saudi Arabia following last month’s closure of the U.S. embassy in Sanaa, a senior U.S. official said on Tuesday.

The choice of Jeddah reflects logistical and security concerns as well as a desire not to signal U.S. support for a partition of Yemen, the official said. Yemen only became a unified state in 1990 as the Soviet collapse undermined the communist south’s economy.

U.S. diplomats pulled out of the Sanaa embassy after Houthi fighters took control of the capital and put President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi under house arrest after storming his private residence and the presidency compound in January.

After years of crisis, Yemen now risks descending into a full-blown civil war pitting regional, political, tribal and sectarian rivals against each other in a nation that shares a long border with top global oil exporter Saudi Arabia.

U.S. Ambassador Matthew Tueller visited Hadi on Sunday in Aden, the former capital of the south to which the president has moved, sparking speculation that Washington might follow Saudi and other Gulf Arab states in shifting its embassy there.

However, the senior U.S. official said Washington had no plans for a permanent diplomatic presence in Yemen for now.

Jeddah was chosen because Tueller can work from the U.S. consulate general, because there is no U.S. diplomatic facility in Aden, raising security concerns, and because Washington did not want to telegraph support for a partition of Yemen, he said.

“We didn’t want to send any mixed signals in terms of where we believe the situation in Yemen was going,” said the U.S. official, who spoke by telephone to reporters in Montreux, where U.S.-Iranian talks on Tehran’s nuclear program are underway.

“U.S. policy supports a unified Yemen, the preservation of Yemen’s territorial integrity, and we didn’t want to do anything that might signal to other observers that perhaps we were thinking about the division of Yemen,” the official added.

Washington is worried by the deepening crisis in Yemen after the Iranian-backed Shi’ite Muslim Houthi group overran Sanaa last September and sidelined Hadi’s government. Hadi has resumed official duties from southern Yemen’s main city.

It fears the move will further embolden al Qaeda’s local branch, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which sees Shi’ites as heretics. The United States has long conducted drone strikes against the militants, a strategy critics say has failed to make a decisive difference and has stoked anti-U.S. sentiment.

Reporting By Arshad Mohammed in Montreux and Mohammed Mukhashaf in Aden, Editing by Gareth Jones

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