Yemen militia denounces embassy closures as Al-Qaeda seizes base, heavy weaponry

A police trooper walks past armoured US embassy cars, seized by Houthi rebels, at Sanaa airport Feb 12, 2015. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
A police trooper walks past armoured US embassy cars, seized by Houthi rebels, at Sanaa airport Feb 12, 2015. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

SANAA (AFP) - The Shi'ite militia that controls Yemen's capital said Thursday a decision by Western powers to close their embassies was "unjustified," as Al-Qaeda fighters overran an army camp and seized heavy weaponry.

Long on the front line of the war against Al-Qaeda, Yemen has descended into chaos since the militia, known as Huthis, seized Sanaa in September and ousted the government last week.

The United States, Britain and France have rushed to close their embassies over security fears, with US staff destroying top-secret documents and sensitive equipment before pulling out Wednesday.

But Hussein al-Ezzi, described as the militia's foreign relations chief, said the closures were designed to "pressure" the Yemeni people.

"The decisions of some Western countries to close their embassies in Sanaa are absolutely unjustified," he was quoted as saying by the official Saba news agency, now under militia control.

Ezzi did not explain why he considered unjustified a decision that Washington attributed to the "deteriorating security situation".

But earlier this week, militia chief Abdulmalik al-Huthi had sought to reassure foreign powers, saying their fears were "unfounded" and insisting that the "security situation is stable" in Sanaa.

Even so, hours after the US staff headed for the airport and flew to Oman, a special forces unit loyal to the elected president, now under virtual house arrest, clashed with dozens of Huthi fighters who tried to advance on the embassy premises.

The Huthis have been tightening their grip on Sanaa and expanding their control of territory to the south.

Last week, they dissolved parliament and declared a "presidential council" after Western-backed leader Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi resigned over what he said was an ungovernable situation.

AL-QAEDA CAPTURES ARMOUR, ARTILLERY

Yemen has been a key ally in the fight against Al-Qaeda, allowing Washington to carry out a longstanding drone war on its territory.

But while Marines at the embassy departed, officials stressed there were still US special forces on the ground to carry on the fight.

"There continue to be Department of Defence personnel... on the ground in Yemen that are coordinating with their counterparts," said White House spokesman Josh Earnest.

They were carrying out "the counterterrorism actions that are necessary to protect the American people and our interests around the world."

On Thursday, seven people died in clashes as Al-Qaeda fighters seized the camp of the 19th Infantry Brigade in Baihan, in southern Shabwa province, and captured a large quantity of armour and heavy weaponry.

They took "30 tanks, 90 military vehicles, 25 armoured vehicles and 28 artillery pieces," a military official told AFP.

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), considered by Washington as the terrorist network's most dangerous branch, confirmed it had seized the camp, accusing troops there of links with the Huthis.

Tribal mediation was under way to convince Al-Qaeda to withdraw, the official said.

Britain has also closed its embassy in Sanaa and France said it would do so from Friday.

After the US withdrawal, vehicles used to evacuate embassy staff were seized by militiamen at Sanaa airport.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the seizure was "completely unacceptable" and urged the Huthis to "respect international conventions" regarding the embassy site.

Ezzi confirmed that vehicles had been seized, without saying exactly how many, but insisted they were taken for safekeeping and would be handed over "to a trustworthy third party, like the United Nations office."

Airport officials had said they included three cars used by Ambassador Matthew Tueller and his staff, and more than 25 vehicles used by the Marines in charge of security.

The Marines destroyed their heavy weapons and their personal firearms before leaving, the Marine Corps said.

Local employees said computers, documents, telephones and other sensitive materials were also destroyed.