Houthis Slam Embassy Closures as UN Warns of Civil War

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A supporter of the Houthi movement holds a banner reads in Arabic: "God is the greatest... Death to America, death to Israel, victory for Islam," in Sanaa on February 11, 2015. AFP/Mohammed Huwais.

Published Thursday, February 12, 2015

Updated at 4:40 pm (GMT+2): A senior Houthi militia figure said on Thursday that closures of Western diplomatic missions were "unjustified," and promised to return US embassy vehicles it had seized, while clashes in north and south resume between al-Qaeda, the Houthis and other armed groups.

Meanwhile, the United Nations warned that the country was on the brink of civil war.

The United States, Britain and France cited security fears as they announced the shutting of their embassies on Wednesday, days after the Houthis dissolved parliament and established a “transitional council” — headed by senior group member Mohammed Ali al-Houthi.

On Thursday, Hussein al-Ezzi, described as the Houthi militia's head of foreign relations, said the closures were designed to put "pressure" on the Yemeni people.

"The decisions of some Western countries to close their embassies in Sanaa are absolutely unjustified," he was quoted as saying by the official Saba news agency, which is under Houthis control.

Ezzi said the countries that closed their embassies "will quickly realize that it is in their interests to deal positively with the will of the Yemeni people, which they must respect."

US embassy staff destroyed documents and weapons and abandoned vehicles at the airport as they made a hasty exit from Yemen.

The Houthis seized three diplomatic cars and more than 25 vehicles used by Marines in charge of security at the mission.

Ezzi confirmed that vehicles had been seized, without saying exactly how many, and insisted they were taken for safekeeping.

"It was to safeguard and protect (the vehicles) because certain drivers and local (embassy) staff wanted to appropriate them," he said.

"Airport authorities in Sanaa are ready to hand over the vehicles to a trustworthy third party, like the United Nations office."

On Wednesday, the US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki thanked Oman's sultan for his help to evacuate the embassy as well as Qatar, saying most staff were now en route back to Washington.

All the US Marines also left the country, taking commercial flights. Officials stressed that there were still US special forces on the ground to carry on the fight against al-Qaeda.

US officials refused to say how many people were evacuated, but there were said to be dozens of Marines in Sanaa — a larger than usual contingent.

Meanwhile, Islamist militants overran an army camp in southern Yemen following clashes on Thursday that killed at least seven people, a local government official said.

The militants seized the camp of the 19th Infantry Brigade in Bayhan, a town in southern Shabwa province, the official said, adding that three soldiers were among those killed.

Ansar al-Sharia, a jihadist group, said on Twitter that its fighters seized control of the camp of Battalion 19 in the province's Bihan district. The group posted photos of nine soldiers allegedly captured by its fighters.

Ansar al-Sharia said that after bombing the entrance of the base, it took control of three guard towers and one tank.

"By approximately eight o'clock in the morning, the mujahideen had imprisoned most of the soldiers inside," the group said on Twitter.

An official from the town of Beyhan near the seized army base said residents feared the Houthis would now move in to confront the jihadist fighters.

"We are scared this (the capture of the army base) is going to be used as a justification for a Houthi attack and that they will take over Shabwa with the help of the army," the official said, refusing to be identified.

Moreover, five Yemenis, including three soldiers, were injured in a bomb blast on Thursday in Hadramawt province, a medical source has said.

Hadramawt is the largest governorate of Yemen, which lies between Saudi Arabia and the Gulf of Aden. The bomb went off in Seiyun district of Hadramawt. No group has yet claimed responsibility.

Yemen crisis has raised fears of a collapse of authority in the country, a key US ally that has allowed Washington to carry out a longstanding drone war against the country's powerful al-Qaeda branch.

The Houthis seized control of Sanaa in September and have since been tightening their grip on the capital and expanding their territory.

They dissolved parliament and declared a "presidential council" last week after the Western-backed president, Abed-Rabbo Mansour Hadi, tendered his resignation saying he could no longer govern.

The United Nations has called for Hadi to be restored to power and brokered talks this week aimed at bringing the country out of crisis.

"We believe the situation is very dangerous. Yemen is on the brink of civil war," the UN Special Envoy to Yemen Jamal Benomar said in an interview with television channels al-Arabiya and al-Hadath late on Wednesday.

He accused all sides of contributing to the political and economic turmoil and called for more talks.

(AFP, Reuters, Anadolu, Al-Akhbar)

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