Iran-backed Yemen forces breach U.S. Embassy compound in Sanaa, detain local employees

Yemeni security employees of the U.S. government have been detained in Sanaa, where the compound that housed the American Embassy was breached by Iran-backed Houthi forces who took over of much of Yemen in 2014, according to the State Department.

The U.S. diplomatic mission suspended operations in 2015, near the start of Yemen’s protracted bloody civil war between the Saudi-backed government and the Iran-supported Houthis. American diplomat and other key personnel were moved to Saudi Arabia as a significant ally of the United States in this region.

A spokesperson for the State Department said Thursday that a “majority” of the U.S. Embassy staff that were detained have been released and that Washington was engaging in “unceasing” diplomatic efforts to free the security guards still in custody. The reason for the Yemeni staff being detained is unclear. A spokesperson from State Department Ned Price stated Tuesday that it was impossible to give an exact number.

The State Department also called on Houthi forces to “immediately vacate” the embassy compound and to “return all seized property.” The detained Yemeni employees are security personnel who had been guarding the outside of the facility, according to a State Department official.

Saudi Arabia is staunchly opposed to the Houthi forces and launched a military intervention in 2015, ostensibly seeking to restore Yemen’s internationally recognized government to power. Saudi Arabia and its allies seek to stop Iran expanding their influence in the region.

Houthi forces have also directly attacked Saudi Arabia, targeting the energy-rich kingdom’s airports and oil production facilities. The Saudi government had imposed a near-total blockade on Yemen, exacerbating a severe humanitarian crisis.

The U.N. Security Council this week sanctioned three Houthi rebel leaders that it said helped orchestrate attacks on Saudi Arabia and Yemen’s remote Marib province, a stronghold of the internationally backed government. At least 1,700 government troops have been killed in Marib this year as of early October. It is believed that the Houthis also suffered heavy casualties.

In February, the Biden administration removed the Houthis from a foreign terrorist watch list and announced the end of U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition’s offensive operations, pledging instead to ramp up diplomatic efforts by naming a special envoy to Yemen.

The detentions and compound breach spurred criticism in conservative circles of President Biden’s foreign policies. U.S. enemies sense weakness in certain individuals holding office, Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R.Texas). said in a tweet that compared the detentions in Sanaa to events such as the 1979 seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and the deadly 2012 attack on American facilities in Benghazi, Libya.

O’Grady reported from Cairo. This report was contributed by Missy Ryan from Washington.

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