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Rebels Seize Vehicles and Weapons as US and Others Close Embassies in Yemen

Several Western nations closed their embassies in Sanaa on Wednesday, with US personnel reportedly destroying documents before fleeing the Yemeni capital.

by Giulia Aloisio
Feb 11 2015, 7:23pm

Photo by Hani Mohammed/AP

Several Western nations closed or suspended embassy operations in Yemen on Wednesday, with US soldiers and diplomatic staffers abandoning vehicles and destroying documents and weapons as they fled Sanaa following a government takeover by Shia Houthi rebels.

"Recent unilateral actions disrupted the political transition process in Yemen, creating the risk that renewed violence would threaten Yemenis and the diplomatic community in Sanaa," US State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki said, announcing the US Embassy's closure.

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The rebels reportedly seized US Embassy vehicles and firearms after the Americans departed. The Associated Press quoted Yemeni officials as saying embassy staffers destroyed files and documents before leaving. A Marine security detachment at the embassy disarmed machine guns and other heavy weapons, a Pentagon spokesman said.

The soldiers reportedly kept their small arms as they escorted embassy personnel to the airport, surrendering the guns to Yemeni officials before boarding commercial flights out of the country.

Britain's Foreign Office closed said the country's embassy in Sanaa had been closed and all diplomatic staff evacuated.

"The security situation in Yemen has continued to deteriorate over recent days. Regrettably we now judge that our Embassy staff and premises are at increased risk," Tobias Ellwood, Minister for the Middle East, said in an official statement. "Our Ambassador and diplomatic staff have left Yemen this morning and will return to the UK."

The MP also used Twitter to urge all Britons to leave Yemen immediately.

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A spokesperson for the Foreign Office told VICE News that the embassy will remain shuttered until the safety of its workers can be guaranteed.

The closure comes six days after the Shia Houthi rebels took over Yemen's government and dissolved the parliament. In a televised statement Friday, the rebels said they will form a presidential council composed of five members that will act as interim government for two years, replacing deposed Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

US citizens have not been ordered to evacuate, but the State Department issued a new travel warning for Yemen. The warning strongly advises American people to leave Yemen and avoid areas with protests, highlighting the high risk of kidnappings and violent crimes.

France's embassy in Yemen also urged French citizens to leave the country as soon as possible and announced that the embassy will close February 13, until further notice. Germany took similar measures.

The Houthis — a revivalist movement of the Zaydi form of Shia Islam that is largely unique to northern Yemen — have been a divisive force in the country's tribal culture. Thousands have protested in recent weeks against the group's rise to power, with crowds gathering in the streets of Sana'a and across the country's south.

"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."

The State Department spokeswoman also reiterated the UN Security's Council's call for the immediate release of President Hadi, Prime Minister Bahah, and members of the Yemeni cabinet. "An inclusive political process cannot resume with members of the country's leadership under house arrest," she said.