The United States has called on Yemen’s Houthi rebels to release an unspecified number of detained Yemenis who work for the US embassy in the capital, Sanaa.
The compound that previously served as the embassy – operations were moved to Saudi Arabia years ago because of Yemen’s war – has been breached, a State Department spokesperson told the AFP news agency on Thursday.
Most of the detainees have been released but the rebels continue to hold Yemeni employees of the embassy, the spokesperson said.
“We are concerned that Yemeni staff of the US Embassy in Sanaa continue to be detained without explanation and we call for their immediate release,” the official said, urging the Houthis to “immediately vacate” the compound and return all seized property.
The US transferred embassy operations to Riyadh in 2015 because of Yemen’s civil war.
The conflict broke out in late 2014 when the Houthis seized large swaths of the country, including the capital, Sanaa. It escalated in March 2015 when Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates assembled a US-backed military coalition in an attempt to restore the government of Riyadh-backed President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
Saudi Arabia considers the Houthis to be Iran proxies, allegations that both the rebels and Tehran reject. The war has spurred a massive humanitarian crisis, with about 80 percent of Yemen’s 30 million people relying on aid to survive. The United Nations said last year that approximately 233,000 people had died as a result of the conflict. At a briefing on Tuesday, State Department spokesman Ned Price said the Biden administration was “extremely concerned” by reports of the detentions of US embassy employees in Sanaa.
“We’ve seen some progress and we’re continuing to work this critical issue. The majority of those who have been detained are no longer in custody,” Price told reporters, without providing an exact number of employees who were detained or why.
“We are committed to ensuring the safety of those who serve the US government overseas, and that is why we are so actively engaged on this matter, including through our international partners,” he said.
Earlier this year, US President Joe Biden announced an end to American support for Saudi Arabia’s “offensive operations” in Yemen, including “relevant arms sales”.
Washington last week approved a $650m sale of air-to-air missiles to Riyadh, a move the Pentagon said on November 4 would “support US foreign policy and national security of the United States by helping to improve the security of a friendly country that continues to be an important force for political and economic progress in the Middle East”.