Western Diplomats Quit Crisis-Hit Yemen

Western governments evacuated their diplomats from Yemen on Wednesday as conflict deepened in the impoverished Saudi neighbour which has long been on the front line of the war against al-Qaida.

Exactly four years after the start of Arab Spring-inspired protests that forced veteran strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh from power, his Western-backed successor is under effective house arrest, after being ousted by Shiite militia last week.

The United Nations has demanded his reinstatement but its efforts to broker a deal between the militiamen and their opponents have made no headway and the Security Council was to meet later Wednesday to decide on what to do next.

The Huthi militia, which entered the capital unopposed last September, seized more territory in the Sunni-majority country this week, sparking fears of a backlash from its feared al-Qaida branch.

Washington said the "deteriorating security situation" in the capital Sanaa had triggered its decision to close its embassy indefinitely.

"On February 11... U.S. Embassy Sanaa American staff were relocated out of the country," a State Department travel warning said.

"The Department urges U.S. citizens to defer travel to Yemen and those U.S. citizens currently living in Yemen to depart."

Yemeni soldiers were seen deployed around the U.S. mission in Sanaa on Wednesday.

Britain too evacuated its diplomats.


- 'At increased risk' - 

"Regrettably we now judge that our embassy staff and premises are at increased risk," said Tobias Ellwood, the Foreign Office minister with responsibility for the Middle East.

"Our ambassador and diplomatic staff have left Yemen this morning."

France also called on its 100 or so citizens in Yemen to leave the country and said it would close its embassy starting from February 13 over mounting security fears.

The Arab Spring protests of 2011 had raised hopes of democratic reform after more than three decades of ironfisted rule by Saleh.

But his departure from office the following year created a power vacuum that the Huthis and al-Qaida have vied to fill.

Washington has been at pains to stress that its battle against the jihadists' Yemen branch will go on regardless of the outcome of the struggle for power in Sanaa.

Four suspected al-Qaida fighters were killed in a U.S. drone strike in Hadramawt province in the southeast on Tuesday.

It was the fourth strike since U.S. President Barack Obama vowed on January 25 not to let up in Washington's campaign against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Last Thursday, al-Qaida said a U.S. strike had killed Harith al-Nadhari, a senior commander who threatened more attacks on France after last month's killings at satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

Washington considers AQAP the jihadist network's most dangerous branch after repeated attacks and attempts against targets in the West.

The exodus of Western diplomats came despite pleas from the Huthis' commander that the security situation in the capital was stable.


- Militia says 'fears unfounded' - 

"Some people are raising concerns among diplomatic missions so that they flee the country," Abdulmalik al-Huthi said in a televised address on Tuesday.

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

Huthi has repeatedly portrayed the militia's advance into Sunni-majority areas as a battle against jihadists and called for Western support.

But loyalists of Western-backed President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi insist that only his restoration can prevent a collapse of central authority that will hamstring the war against the jihadists in Sunni areas.

Hadi also has strong backing from Yemen's wealthy Sunni-ruled Gulf neighbours, whose aid is vital to the economy.

Protests against the Huthis were held on Wednesday both in the capital and in the central city of Al-Baida, which the militia entered on Tuesday.

Huthi called on his own supporters to take to the streets to commemorate the protests of 2011.

Addressing his adversaries, Huthi proposed what he called "a partnership" under the "constitutional declaration" by which the militia seized power on Friday.

U.N. envoy Jamal Benomar brokered two days of talks between the opposing factions and was due to brief the Security Council session later on Wednesday.

The fall of Hadi's government has sparked fears that Yemen -- strategically located next to oil-rich Saudi Arabia and on the key shipping route from the Suez Canal to the Gulf -- could plunge into chaos.

Source: Associated Press, Agence France Presse

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