The Biden administration is calling for the immediate release of Yemeni staff of the U.S. Embassy in Sana’a who are being detained by Iran-backed Houthi separatists who control the city, a State Department spokesperson told The Hill on Thursday.
The spokesperson said that the majority of the staff have been released but the Houthis continue to detain Yemeni employees of the embassy without explanation.
The U.S. is also concerned about the Houthis’ breach of the American Embassy compound in Sana’a, which has been closed since 2015 when its official operations moved to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, amid the Yemeni civil war.
“We call on the Houthis to immediately vacate it and return all seized property. The U.S. government will continue its diplomatic efforts to secure the release of our staff and the vacating of our compound, including through our international partners,” the spokesperson said.
They did not address in what capacity the locally employed staff had been working or how many are detained. U.S. embassies around the world frequently employ and rely on local citizens of the host country for staffing to supplement the work of American employees.
Bloomberg first reported on Tuesday that at least 25 locally employed Yemeni staff of the U.S. Embassy and U.S. Agency for International Development were detained by the Houthis, the Iran-backed militant group that controls the north of Yemen.
The Houthis have fought against the U.S.-supported and Saudi-backed Yemeni government, based in the southern city of Aden, for more than seven years as the country has sunk into the world’s most devastating humanitarian crisis.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Tuesday that the State Department has been “unceasing in our behind-the-scenes diplomatic efforts to secure” the release of detained local Yemeni employees in Sana’a.
“We are committed to ensuring the safety of those who serve the U.S. Government overseas, and that is why we are so actively engaged on this matter, including through our international partners,” Price said.
U.S. special envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking and Chargé d’Affaires of the U.S. Embassy to Yemen Cathy Westley visited Aden on Monday meeting with the prime minister, foreign minister, other senior government officials and representatives of Yemeni civil society, according to a readout provided by the State Department.
Lenderking emphasized in his visit the need for “all Yemenis to come together to end this war and enact bold reforms to revive the economy, counter corruption, and alleviate suffering” while Westley underscored that the U.S. wants the Yemeni government in Aden to do more to enact reforms to help ease suffering caused by the war.
President Biden’s appointment of Lenderking as special envoy was part of a push to increase diplomacy to resolve Yemen’s civil war.
In February, the president announced an end to U.S. support for Saudi-led offensive operations in the war in Yemen, a move that satisfied lawmakers from both sides of the aisle looking to remove America from involvement in alleged Saudi-war crimes in the civil war.
The president also reversed the former Trump administration’s decision to label the Houthis a terrorist organization, a move celebrated by the United Nations and advocates that warned a Houthi terrorist designation would effectively end the delivery of humanitarian assistance into the northern part of the country.