The United States has further reduced its diplomatic profile in Yemen amid the violence and political upheaval there, the State Department said Monday.
The U.S. Embassy in Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, remains open, but “routine consular services are closed to the public,” State Department spokesman Jen Psaki said. “We’re still providing emergency consular services to U.S. citizens.” Diplomatic families and other nonessential personnel have left the country over the past several months.
Additional moves to tighten security at the embassy came as the CIA carried out a drone strike against the al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen, known as AQAP; it was the first American airstrike in the country in more than a month. The attack killed three suspected militants in eastern Marib province, according to reports from the region. A CIA spokesman declined to comment.
In response to reports from Yemen that a teenager was among the dead, National Security Council spokesman Edward Price said that he would not “comment on specific operational details,” but that “the U.S. government takes seriously all credible reports of noncombatant deaths and injuries” and conducts “after-action reviews.” Referring to standards President Obama has set for drone strikes, Price said that “there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured.”
The CIA and the U.S. military’s Joint Special Operations Command have continued to deploy armed drones in Yemen, despite the turmoil in the capital after last week’s toppling of the Yemeni government by rebel Houthi tribesmen.
Obama administration officials said Friday that U.S. military teams had suspended training of their Yemeni counterparts and had shut down operations in the capital, but that they continued to work with Yemeni counterterrorism units in other parts of the country.
“Counterterrorism operations will continue in Yemen,” said White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes, who was traveling in India with Obama. “We’ve made clear that we’ll take direct action inside of Yemen against AQAP targets.”
Psaki said that the State Department’s “top priority always will be to make sure that our people on the ground in Yemen are safe. A second priority is to maintain our counterterrorism pressure on al-Qaeda in Yemen, and we’ve been doing that.”
“We remain, of course, concerned by what has always been a fragile central government, and the forces inside of Yemen that are constantly threatening to break apart between north and south, between Houthi and Sunni inside of Yemen,” she said.
The Shiite Houthis, whose tribal home is in the northern part of the country, are allegedly backed by Iran and have long opposed a series of Sunni-led governments in Yemen.
Counterterrorism assistance to Yemen has been focused on al-Qaeda elements, which are Sunni, and U.S. officials have long said they would not become involved in what they called the government’s “internal” battle with the Houthis.
“What we want to see going forward is a political process that can restore stability,” Rhodes said. “The United States is well acquainted with many of the different actors inside of Yemen. And we’re confident that if we can get the relevant factions in Yemen into a discussion about restoring stability and a political process, that we’ll be able to maintain the type of cooperation we’ve had with Yemen and its security forces in recent years.”
While a U.S. Embassy vehicle was reportedly fired on in Sanaa last week, the administration does not think Americans are particular targets of the political turmoil in Sanaa.
Greg Miller contributed to this report.