Embassies Closed in Yemen as AQAP Supporters Pledge Allegiance to ISIS

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Security forces stand guard around the US Embassy building in Sanaa, Yemen, on February 11, 2015 after the US government closed down its embassy. Anadolu/Mohammed Hamoud.

Published Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Updated at 5:30 pm (GMT+2): Britain, the United States and France have pulled their ambassadors and other staff out of Yemen and suspended work at the embassies due to fears over the security situation, officials said on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, a group of Islamist militants in Yemen, which formerly had supported al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), reportedly pledged allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) on Tuesday.

The US State Department said on Tuesday it made the decision to close its Yemen embassy "due to the deteriorating security situation in Sanaa," just as the United Nations brokered a second day of talks aimed at resolving the crisis gripping the country.

The UK's move came after the United States said it was closing its embassy indefinitely after the Houthi militants, who staged a political takeover on February 6 , warned against attempts to destabilize the country.

Britain's Foreign Office in London said operations at its embassy had been suspended "temporarily."

"The security situation in Yemen has continued to deteriorate over recent days," Tobias Ellwood, the Foreign Office minister with responsibility for the Middle East, said.

"Regrettably we now judge that our embassy staff and premises are at increased risk.”

"We have therefore decided to withdraw diplomatic staff and temporarily suspend the operations of the British Embassy in Sanaa,” Ellwood added. "Our ambassador and diplomatic staff have left Yemen this morning and will return to the UK."

On Wednesday, the French embassy also suspended its operations for "security reasons."

Anti-Houthi demonstrations

Yemenis in the central city of Taiz and the capital Sanaa held the largest protests yet against a takeover by a the Houthi militia group on Wednesday after Western countries shut their embassies in Yemen over security fears.

Houthi fighters, bedecked in tribal robes and automatic rifles, were out in force manning checkpoints and guarding government buildings they control in the capital.

Houthi gunmen shot in the air and thrust daggers at hundreds of protesters opposing their rule in Sanaa.

In Taiz, which the Houthis do not control, huge crowds of thousands carried banners and chanted slogans against the militants.

Meanwhile, Yemeni Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakkol Karman has urged revolutionaries to use the fourth anniversary of the 2011 uprising that toppled ousted dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh to launch a fresh revolution against what she called the Houthi "coup."

"This new revolutionary wave won't stop until the army's weaponry is restored, militias dissolved, and a modern state — that respects freedom, dignity, justice and equality — is established," Karman said in a statement.

The Nobel laureate said that Yemen was currently at a critical juncture. "It will either be consumed by chaos and war or the youth will defeat violence through their peaceful and popular will," she said.

Unfounded fears

On Tuesday, Houthi militia chief Abdel Malek al-Houthi said that foreign diplomats fears of instability was unfounded.

Speaking in a televised address as the UN-brokered talks carried on at a Sanaa hotel, Houthi sought to reassure diplomats after reports that some embassies in Sanaa intended to close.

"Some people are raising concerns among diplomatic missions so that they flee the country," he said, adding that "these fears are unfounded. The security situation is stable."

"It is in the interests of everyone, both inside and outside the country, that Yemen be stable," Houthi stressed.

"The interests of those who bet on chaos and want to hurt the economy and security of the people will suffer," the Houthi leader warned.

In particular, he singled out the monarchies in the Gulf, who have vowed to defend their interests in the face of what Houthis’ opponents are calling a coup.

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

He took particular aim at the Islamist party al-Islah, one of the fiercest opponents of his militia, urging it to give up an ideology "that excludes the other."

On February 6, matters came to a head when the Houthis said they had dissolved parliament and created a presidential council to bring the country out of crisis.

UN envoy Jamal Benomar warned that Yemen was at a "crossroads," and urged political leaders to "take up their responsibilities and achieve consensus" as he battles for a negotiated solution.

Meanwhile, Houthis affirmed their military supremacy across the country as clashes broke out on Tuesday, leading to the militia taking control of the central al-Bayda province.

In Tuesday's fighting, residents of the central city of Bayda said elements of the Republican Guard still loyal to the ousted dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh had supported the Houthis in the heavy combat that led to the province falling under Houthi control.

In the west of the province, 10 Houthis were killed and another six captured in fighting with local tribesmen, tribal sources revealed.

The Houthi takeover has drawn international condemnation, including from UN chief Ban Ki-moon calling for President Abed-Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who has resigned, to be restored to power.

"The situation is very, very seriously deteriorating, with the Houthis taking power and making this government vacuum. There must be restoration of legitimacy of President Hadi," Ban said.

The fall of Hadi's government has sparked fears that impoverished 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.

AQAP allegiance to ISIS

Meanwhile, a group of Islamist fighters in Yemen renounced their loyalty to al-Qaeda's leader and pledged allegiance to the head of ISIS, according to a Twitter message retrieved by US-based monitoring group SITE.

The monitoring group could not immediately verify the statement distributed on Twitter purportedly from supporters of AQAP based in central Yemen.

AQAP is considered the most powerful branch of the global militant network headed by Ayman al-Zawahiri and has previously rejected the authority of ISIS, which has declared a caliphate in large swathes of land in Iraq and Syria.

"We announce the formation of armed brigades specialized in pounding the apostates in Sanaa and Dhamar," the purported former AQAP supporters wrote, referring to two central provinces.

"We announce breaking the pledge of allegiance to the sheikh, the holy warrior and scholar Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri ... We pledge to the caliph of the believers Ibrahim bin Awad al-Baghdadi to listen and obey," they said.

Militants in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula and Libya have also joined ISIS, signaling a competition for loyalty among armed Islamists battling states in the Middle East and North Africa.

US drones keep flying over Yemen

The Pentagon on Tuesday acknowledged that Yemen's political unrest was impacting its counter-terrorism capabilities but said it was still training some Yemeni forces and could still carry out operations inside the country against al-Qaeda militants.

"There's no question as a result of the political instability in Yemen that our counter-terrorism capabilities have been ... affected," Rear Admiral John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, told a news briefing.

"As I stand here today, we continue to conduct some training. We continue to have the capability — unilaterally if need be — of conducting counter-terrorism operations inside Yemen."

Turmoil in the wake of late January’s collapse of a US-backed Yemeni government after days of clashes in the capital Sanaa, forced the US State Department to reduce staff and operations at the US Embassy.

The turmoil has also cast doubt over the future of a key partnership for Washington in the fight against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Only last September, US President Barack Obama touted cooperation with Yemen as a model in counter-terrorism.

The crisis in the Arab world's poorest country threatens to create a power vacuum that could allow AQAP to expand across the peninsula.

In Late January, US officials said training of Yemeni special forces had ground to a halt in the capital, though some joint activities were continuing in the south.

The US officials added that they can continue drone strikes, as demonstrated by a February 10 attack in Hadramawt province in southeastern Yemen, which killed four suspected al-Qaeda members.

The Central Intelligence Agency, which conducts the bulk of drone operations in Yemen, has no drone bases on Yemeni soil but operates from Saudi Arabia and Djibouti, US officials say.

Yemen is a key US ally in the fight against al-Qaeda, allowing Washington to conduct a longstanding drone war against the group on its territory. However, US drone attacks in the impoverished Gulf country have also killed many civilians unaffiliated with al-Qaeda.

(AFP, Reuters, Anadolu, Al-Akhbar)

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