US, allies up security at Mideast missions

2013-08-07 09:00
Travellers make their way to the departure lounge at Sanaa International Airport, Yemen. (Hani Mohammed, AP)

Travellers make their way to the departure lounge at Sanaa International Airport, Yemen. (Hani Mohammed, AP)

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Washington - The United States and its allies pulled diplomats out of Yemen on Tuesday and stepped up security at missions across the Middle East amid fears of an imminent al-Qaeda attack.

Washington has closed 19 embassies and consulates in the Middle East and Africa, citing intercepted communications among militants, reportedly including an attack order from al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.

While the closures span cities across the Arab world, the focus of most concern has been Yemen, where American forces are fighting a drone war against al-Qaeda's powerful regional affiliate.

The Yemeni government late on Tuesday, however, issued a strong response to the diplomatic withdrawal, stating it recognised the safety fears of foreign governments, but that the pullout "serves the interests of the extremists".

Such a step "undermines the exceptional co-operation between Yemen and the international alliance against terrorism," the foreign ministry in Sana'a said.

Local authorities had "taken all necessary precautions to ensure the safety and security of foreign missions", it stressed.

Emergency services

Around 75 non-essential staffers at the US embassy in Sana'a exited on a military plane, an American official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

The plane, accompanied by a support aircraft, flew to the US air base in Ramstein, Germany, the official said.

State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said the 19 offices are closed to the public, but they continue to provide emergency US citizen services.

"They are instructed to close for normal operations through Saturday, August 10," she added, noting that some staff would remain.

"This is based - this decision and the announcement this morning was based - on a response to an immediate specific threat."

The State Department warned US citizens not to travel to Yemen and strongly urged any already there to leave "immediately".

False bomb threat

Separately, Pentagon spokesperson George Little said: "The US Department of Defence continues to have personnel on the ground to support the US State Department and monitor the security situation."

US ally Britain, meanwhile, announced the temporary withdrawal of all personnel from its embassy in Yemen, saying it would remain closed "until staff are able to return".

France and Germany have also closed their missions and other European countries have taken extra precautions. Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands advised their citizens to leave.

In a separate incident, the US consulate in the Italian city of Milan was briefly evacuated over an apparently false bomb threat.

An AFP correspondent in Sana'a said concrete barriers surrounding the British embassy had been raised higher as part of increased security measures across the capital.

A US-flagged passenger plane had been seen at Sana'a airport, the correspondent said. Residents meanwhile reported that two drones had overflown the capital.

Ships warned

The United States is the only nation known to fly drones over Yemen, and the withdrawal of staff came hours after a drone strike in the country killed four alleged al-Qaeda militants.

A Yemeni defence ministry official said at least one of the men killed in the strike was a suspect thought to be planning an attack before the end of Ramadan this weekend.

Britain also issued a warning to ships operating in the pirate-plagued waters of the Gulf of Aden off Yemen.

According to reports, the trigger for the pullback came when US intelligence intercepted messages between Zawahiri and Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the leader of al-Qaeda's Yemen offshoot, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

The New York Times said on Monday that last week's electronic communications revealed Zawahiri had ordered AQAP to carry out an attack as early as last Sunday.

That day passed without incident, but the State Department has nevertheless ordered the embassies and missions remain closed this week.

Drone strikes

AQAP is seen as the global Islamist militant network's most capable franchise following the decimation of al-Qaeda's core leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan in recent years.

The Yemen-based group has attempted several attacks on US interests, including a failed bid to bring down a passenger plane by a man wearing explosives in his underwear and another to send bombs concealed in printer cartridges.

The United States in turn has launched scores of drone strikes in Yemen, where the militant group thrives in vast, lawless areas largely outside the government's control.

In an incident that underlined the level of unrest in the country, a tribal chief said gunmen had downed a Yemeni military helicopter on Tuesday, killing eight troops, in a local dispute with the government over oil pipeline repairs.

Lawmakers in Washington described the threat level as very serious, with some invoking the memory of the 11 September 2001 attacks.

Late last week, the State Department issued a worldwide travel alert warning US citizens of possible attacks on "public transportation systems and other tourist infrastructure".

And on Saturday, the global police agency Interpol issued a security alert over hundreds of militants freed in jail breaks, notably in Pakistan, Iraq and Libya.

Read more on:    al-qaeda  |  ayman al-zawahiri  |  us  |  security

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