Saudis join West in pulling out Yemen embassy staff

Jamal al-Jabiri
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Shiite Huthi fighters drive through the Yemeni capital Sanaa on February 11, 2015

Shiite Huthi fighters drive through the Yemeni capital Sanaa on February 11, 2015 (AFP Photo/Mohammed Huwais)

Sanaa (AFP) - Saudi Arabia, Germany and Italy became the latest countries to withdraw embassy staff from Yemen on Friday as an exodus of foreign diplomats gathered pace over growing security problems.

Long on the front line of the war against Al-Qaeda, Yemen has descended into chaos since Shiite militiamen, known as Huthis, seized Sanaa in September and ousted the government last week.

Riyadh, Berlin and Rome said they had temporarily closed their missions in the capital Sanaa.

"Due to the deteriorating security and political situation in the Yemeni capital, Saudi Arabia has suspended all embassy operations in Sanaa and evacuated all its staff," the Saudi foreign ministry said.

The United States, Britain and France have rushed to close their embassies over security fears, with US staff destroying top-secret documents and sensitive equipment before pulling out Wednesday.

The Netherlands followed suit the next day.

The Huthis said Western powers had no reason to shut their embassies, insisting that security was solid in the capital.

"The situation is anything but stable," said a German foreign ministry spokeswoman, calling the ouster of the government by the Shiite militiamen "unacceptable, dangerous and with consequences for the region".

"We decided yesterday to temporarily close the embassy in Sanaa and the personnel departed the country early this morning," she said.

The Italian foreign ministry said: "We hope mediation efforts led by UN envoy Jamal Benomar will create security conditions allowing a return of diplomatic personnel to Yemen as soon as possible."

The latest embassy closures came a day after remarks by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who warned Yemen was falling apart.

"Let me be clear: Yemen is collapsing before our eyes. We cannot stand by and watch," Ban told the UN Security Council in New York.

The instability in Yemen has been seized upon by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which is expanding its foothold across the country.

AQAP fighters overran an army camp in southern Shabwa province on Thursday, that left 12 troops and 15 militants dead, military officials said, revising an earlier toll of seven killed.

The militants also seized a large quantity of armour and heavy weaponry, including dozens of tanks and army vehicles as well as artillery pieces, an military official said.

They later handed back control of the camp following tribal mediation but kept the weapons, local government officials said.

- UN resolution discussed -

On Friday, suspected AQAP militants also shot dead an air force pilot in the southern province of Lahij, a local government official told AFP.

Meanwhile, clashes erupted across several neighbourhoods in the central city of Baida which the militia entered on Tuesday, between the Huthis on one side and tribesmen and Al-Qaeda suspects on the other, leaving at least four people dead, local government sources said.

The Huthis stormed houses in the city and detained residents they accuse of having links to Al-Qaeda, the sources said.

Since seizing Sanaa, the Huthis have pressed into central and southern provinces and clashed regularly with AQAP and local Sunni tribes.

Last week, they dissolved parliament and declared a "presidential council" after Western-backed leader Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi resigned over what he said was an ungovernable situation.

At the weekend, Ban called for Hadi to be fully restored as president, following talks with King Salman in Saudi Arabia which has described the Huthi power grab as a coup.

Benomar said Yemen had reached "a crossroad".

"Either the country will descend into civil war and disintegration, or the country will find a way to put the transition back on track," Benomar told the UN Security Council by video link from Sanaa.

Following closed-door consultations in New York, Britain said it would work with Jordan on a resolution to outline the Security Council's stance on Yemen.