US closes embassy in Yemen amid unrest

The State Department is suspending embassy operations in Yemen amid concerns about the volatile security situation there, a significant blow to relations with a one-time key ally in the fight against al Qaeda.

Embassy staff have been relocated out of the capital city of Sana’a, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, adding that the political transition underway created a risk of renewed violence that threatened the diplomatic community.

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Minority Shiite Houthi rebels have seized control of the capital and forced the resignation of President Abd Rabuh Mansur Hadi and his cabinet. 

Psaki said the U.S. would explore a diplomatic return to the country when conditions improved. She also called on the country’s transitional government to release political prisoners and quickly complete work on a new constitution and national elections.

“The future of Yemen should be determined by the Yemeni people,” Psaki said. “All Yemenis have both a right and responsibility to participate in this process peacefully.”

Separately, the U.S. issued a travel warning calling the level of instability in the country “extremely concerning” and encouraging all Americans in the country to depart “as soon as possible.” 

Earlier Tuesday, the State Department said counterterrorism operations against al Qaeda would continue in the country despite the political transition. 

White House press secretary Josh Earnest also defended the administration’s use of Yemen as an example of an effective counterterrorism strategy, despite the unrest.

“What we’ve done in Yemen is sought to work with local officials in Yemen,” Earnest said.

“We have sought to support ground forces in Yemen who can take the fight to the extremists in their own country," he continued. "And we have backed up those ground forces with intelligence and with airstrike capabilities that have succeeded in applying significant pressure to extremists that are operating in that country and curtail their ability to strike American targets.”