- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 25, 2014

The State Department has begun slowly pulling embassy personnel out of Yemen to protect them from deteriorating security conditions as a Shiite militia has taken control of parts of the country’s capital.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Thursday that the department had ordered a temporary personnel reduction at the U.S. Embassy in Sana’a “out of an abundance of caution and in response to recent political developments and the changing, unpredictable security situation in Yemen.”

A senior U.S. official told The Washington Times that turmoil between Yemeni government and Houthi tribesmen, which has spread to the capital, has sparked concerns among State Department officials. The official spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the departure plan.

“The Houthi tribesmen have gained control of large swaths of the city and set up checkpoints in various locations — including the embassy — raising fears in the State Department that the security situation may further erode,” the official said.

The Houthi tribesmen have been engaged in deadly clashes with the Yemeni government, which have intensified over the past week and left more than 140 people dead, according to The Associated Press.

On Sunday, the tribesmen and the government finally signed a peace agreement. The agreement calls for an immediate cease-fire and the formation of a new government within a month after all political parties have been consulted, The Associated Press reported.

In the days leading up to the agreement, the Houthis overran large portions of Sana’a and remain in control of them.

The Houthis are a Shiite group, believed to be backed by Iran, that has been battling Yemen’s Sunni-dominated government. They also say they will fight Sunni Islamist groups such as Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which plotted the 2009 “underwear bomb” Christmas attack on a U.S. jet over Detroit.

Operations at the embassy are expected to continue, albeit with reduced staff, Ms. Psaki said.

“Maintaining the security of our staff is among the highest priorities of the department,” she said. “We are continuing to closely monitor developments in Yemen, and will calibrate our response as the situation develops.”

Lincoln Bloomfield, the State Department’s former deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, said State likely will temporarily eliminate non-security positions, such as jobs that focus on culture, economics or trade.

Those diplomats will embark on a slow-paced evacuation — the kind that does not require military escorts or the use of military aircraft, according to the U.S. official.

“They’ll probably take commercial aircraft or charter a plane or drive out like they did in Libya,” the official said.

The State Department called for a reduction of more than 150 department personnel from the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli in July. The evacuation of that post was prompted by heavy militia violence in the capital area.

State Department personnel complied with the mandated orderly departure and left the city via ground convoy.

The department’s most recent call for a personnel reduction is a “prudent” decision given the checkered history of the embassy, according to Mr. Bloomfield.

The U.S. Embassy in Sana’a was attacked twice in 2008 by the local al-Qaeda branch and other Islamist groups, he said.

That year, the embassy was the target of a mortar attack that went awry and struck a nearby school in March. Several months later, in September, the same group executed a carefully orchestrated, triple car bomb attack on the U.S. facility.

The second attack failed to penetrate the embassy compound but managed to injure and kill people who were waiting in line for passport paperwork.

Now, embassy personnel are faced with a new threat and the State Department appears to be taking the necessary steps to protect them, Mr. Bloomfield said.

The Sana’a embassy compound is seated in a country that is home to numerous tribes with the ability to access weapons and a weak central government, according to Mr. Bloomfield.

“It’s not like a modern western capital,” he said. “It’s a little bit more like the Wild West, with a lot of heavily armed tribes.”

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