US military evacuates embassy personnel from Yemen

WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. military evacuated non-essential U.S. government personnel from Yemen on Tuesday due to the high risk of attack by al-Qaida that has triggered temporary shutdowns of 19 American diplomatic posts across the Middle East and Africa.

The State Department said in a travel warning that it ordered the evacuation “due to the continued potential for terrorist attacks” and said U.S. citizens in Yemen should leave immediately because of an “extremely high” security threat level.

“As staff levels at the Embassy are restricted, our ability to assist U.S. citizens in an emergency and provide routine consular services remains limited and may be further constrained by the fluid security situation,” the travel warning said. The U.S. Embassy is located in Sanaa, the capital of Yemen.

Yemeni security officials said a suspected U.S. drone strike at about 2 a.m. local time Tuesday killed four alleged al-Qaida members in a volatile eastern province of the country. The drone fired a missile at a car carrying the four men, setting it on fire and killing all of them, the officials said. It wasn’t immediately clear if the decision to evacuate the embassy, made earlier, was connected to the drone strike.

The Yemeni officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they are not allowed to talk to the media, said they believe one of the dead is Saleh Jouti, a senior al-Qaida member. It’s the fourth drone attack in the past two weeks to hit a car believed to be carrying al-Qaida members.

Pentagon Press Secretary George Little said the U.S. Air Force transported State Department personnel out of Sanaa early Tuesday. “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 added.

A senior defense official said Tuesday that between 50 and 100 diplomatic personnel were flown out of Sanaa in a C-17 military transport as dawn broke and were taken to Ramstein Air Base in Germany. The official was not authorized to discuss the information publicly so spoke on condition of anonymity. The official said dozens of military troops remain in the country, including those who were doing security at the embassy and others conducting training with Yemeni troops.

Britain’s Foreign Office also announced that it had evacuated all staff from its embassy in Yemen due to security concerns. The office said the British embassy staff were “temporarily withdrawn to the U.K.” on Tuesday, but declined further comment. Previously, the U.K. had said the embassy would be closed until the end of the Muslim festival of Eid later this week.

A U.S. intelligence official and a Mideast diplomat told The Associated Press that the current shutdown of embassies in the Middle East and Africa was instigated by an intercepted secret message between al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahri and Nasser al-Wahishi, the leader of the Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, about plans for a major terror attack. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

The State Department on Sunday closed a total of 19 diplomatic posts until next Saturday. They include posts in Bangladesh and across North Africa and the Middle East as well as East Africa, including Madagascar, Burundi, Rwanda and Mauritius.

Jen Psaki, spokeswoman for the State Department, said in a separate statement issued early Tuesday that the department issued the order for Yemen because of concern about a “threat stream indicating the potential for terrorist attacks against U.S. persons or facilities overseas, especially emanating from the Arabian Peninsula.”

The statement said U.S. citizens who choose to stay in Yemen despite the travel warning should limit nonessential travel within the country and make their own contingency emergency plans.

AQAP, gathered in small cells scattered across Yemen’s vast under-governed regions, has proven to be a tenacious enemy.

Officials say al-Zawahri, who took over for Osama bin Laden and works from Pakistan, has reached out to the Yemeni branch, cementing their ties and further signaling the AQAP is once again looking to target U.S. and Western interests after a sustained period of more local and regional focus.

For puzzled Americans who’ve been told that al-Qaida is on the decline, the latest warnings raise questions about how successful America’s anti-terrorism effort has been and whether al-Qaida has been able to reorganize and reconstitute itself since bin Laden’s death in May 2011.

And, although U.S. officials agreed a year ago to restart military aid to Yemen, it’s unclear how much of the new aircraft and weapons have arrived. After aid to Yemen was frozen for some time, the U.S. military is once again on the ground there training Yemeni special operations forces and has delivered more than a dozen helicopters to the Yemeni military and provided training for them, U.S. defense officials said.

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Associated Press writers Lara Jakes, Kimberly Dozier, Robert Burns and Julie Pace in Washington and Ahmed Al-Haj in Sanaa, Yemen, contributed to this report.

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