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U.S. Embassy warns of Yemen threats, urges citizens to leave

BEIRUT — The United States flew government personnel out of Yemen Tuesday and urged other U.S. citizens to leave immediately after the interception of communications about a planned al-Qaida attack heightened security concerns.

Britain took action to protect its Yemen-based personnel, too, evacuating its embassy in the capital, Sanaa. While both countries were withdrawing citizens, an air strike in Marib province killed four suspected al-Qaida members, Yemen’s state-run Saba news agency reported.

Two drones were seen in a rare flight over the capital Tuesday. The U.S. has used drones in the past to hunt suspected militants in the country.

On Aug. 4, the Obama administration shut down 22 embassies and consulates from West Africa to South Asia after intercepting a message from Ayman al-Zawahri, Osama bin Laden’s successor as al-Qaida chief in Pakistan, to the head of al-Qaida’s Yemen branch, Nasser al-Wahishi.

In response to a request from the State Department, government personnel were flown out of Yemen Tuesday on a Air Force transport plane, Pentagon Press Secretary George Little said.

“The U.S. Department of Defense continues to have personnel on the ground in Yemen to support the U.S. State Department and monitor the security situation,” Little said.

A statement on the website of the U.S. Embassy in Yemen warned U.S. citizens “of the high security threat level in Yemen due to terrorist activities and civil unrest” and urged them to get out as soon as possible.

Britain’s Foreign Office said all Yemen embassy staffers were temporarily withdrawn “due to increased security concerns,” according to an emailed statement. The British mission will remain closed until staff are able to return, it said. The embassy has been shut since Aug. 4 and Britain has urged all Britons to leave Yemen.

Yemen’s government said it has taken “all necessary precautions to ensure the safety and security of foreign missions in the capital Sanaa,” according to a statement e mailed by Yemeni Embassy in Washington.

“While the government of Yemen appreciates foreign governments’ concern for the safety of their citizens, the evacuation of embassy staff serves the interests of the extremists and undermines the exceptional cooperation between Yemen and the international alliance against terrorism,” it said in the statement.

The U.S. has stepped up its drone attacks on suspected al-Qaida militants in the past few months, killing a top leader and more than a dozen commanders, said Abdul-Ghani al-Iryani, a development expert and researcher at the Khobara Center, a research institute in Sanaa.

“With that kind of escalation, some reaction had to be expected,” so U.S. precautionary measures are “not surprising,” he said.

The U.S. measures are warranted given the threat from al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, as the group’s Yemeni branch is called, said Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai.

“It signals that al-Qaida is likely to target American citizens in a possible assassination or kidnapping,” Karasik said.

Last September, Yemeni protesters in Sanaa breached the U.S. Embassy compound’s security perimeter and set two cars ablaze. The attack followed the killing of the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, and three colleagues during an assault on consular buildings in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi on Sept. 11.

Yemen’s Defense Ministry released the names of 25 al-Qaida militants plotting terrorist attacks in the country on its website Monday. Ibrahim Mohammed al-Asiri, a Saudi national, who is the group’s chief bomb maker, was among those named.

U.S. officials have said the Saudi national designed the underwear bomb worn by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab when he tried to blow up a Northwest Airlines plane over Detroit on Christmas Day in 2009. Abdulmutallab was arrested after the bomb malfunctioned.

Asiri is also considered responsible for attempting to kill a Saudi deputy minister that year by designing a device implanted inside a suicide bomber’s body. The explosion killed the bomber; his target survived.

Al-Qaida’s Yemeni affiliate recently confirmed its co-founder, Saeed al-Shihri, was killed by a U.S. drone strike. Al-Shihri, a Saudi citizen, helped merge the Saudi and Yemeni branches of the group into al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula following a crackdown in Saudi Arabia that led to the death or imprisonment of many of its leaders.

With assistance from Eddie Buckle in London, Dana El Baltaji in Dubai and Tony Capaccio in Washington.

© 2013, The Washington Post

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