SANAA (Reuters) - The United States is closing its embassy in Yemen, the Arabian peninsula state that is a front line in Washington’s war against al Qaeda, embassy employees and U.S. officials said on Tuesday.
U.S. officials in Washington confirmed the embassy would close because of the unpredictable security situation in a country where a rebel group has seized control of the capital, Sanaa.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki declined comment. But she noted that the embassy staff had been gradually reduced and said the safety of the personnel was a top priority. “We take steps in order to make sure we do everything we can to protect that,” she told a regular briefing.
Last month, Iran-backed Shi’ite Muslim Houthi fighters, who had captured the capital in September, seized the presidential palace, driving President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and his government to resign.
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.
Yemen is home to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, one of the most active branches of the global Sunni Islamist group.
The United States has long used drones to attack the militants, a strategy critics say has failed to make a decisive difference and has stoked anti-U.S. sentiment.
One U.S. official said a contingent of around 100 Marines was helping protect the U.S. embassy in Yemen. Another official said a Navy amphibious assault ship, the USS Iwo Jima, was in the Red Sea off Yemen’s coast and would be available to help with the evacuation of embassy staff, if requested by the State Department.
The Pentagon acknowledged Yemen’s political unrest had affected its counter-terrorism capabilities but said it was still training some Yemeni forces and could still carry out operations inside the country against al Qaeda militants.
“As I stand here today, we continue to conduct some training. We continue to have the capability – unilaterally if need be – of conducting counter-terrorism operations inside Yemen,” said Rear Admiral John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman.
Kirby declined to discuss the status of the embassy.
U.S. officials said the Americans, who had enjoyed the support of President Hadi, have no functional relationship with the Houthi forces.
The Houthi leader, Abdel Malik al-Houti, took to the air waves to warn outside powers against interfering in the national crisis, saying in a televised speech on Tuesday it was “in the interest of every power, domestic and foreign, to stabilise this country.”
“Any attempt to sow chaos or harm this country will have its repercussions on the interests of these powers,” he said.
Employees of the embassy said the U.S. mission had been getting rid of documents and weapons the past days and that the ambassador and other U.S. staff would leave by Wednesday.
The ambassador told them Washington may ask the Turkish or Algerian embassies in Sanaa to look after U.S. interests.
Employees at the British, French and German embassies said their missions had also been getting rid of documents and have given local staff two months’ paid leave. But there was no immediate word on the missions closing down.
France’s foreign ministry said it was monitoring the situation, but declined to say if the embassy would close.
Political parties have been holding talks in Sanaa under U.N. auspices to try to agree on a transitional administration. Two parties walked out on Monday saying they had received threats from the Houthis.
Additional reporting by Phil Stewart and Mark Hosenball in Washington, Noah Browning in Dubai, Mostafa Hashem in Cairo and John Irish in Cairo; Writing by Sami Aboudi; Editing by Robin Pomeroy and Grant McCool