The Air Force flew State Department and other “non-emergency” U.S. personnel out of Yemen on Tuesday as the U.S. military went on heightened alert from Kabul to Tripoli in response to al-Qaida threats that have forced the closings of 19 embassies.
An Air Force C-17 flew into Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, and took the American passengers back to a U.S. base in Germany, a U.S. military official said, despite the Yemeni government’s charge that the evacuation only “serves the interest of extremists.”
"Early this morning, the U.S. Air Force transported personnel out of Sanaa, Yemen, as part of the reduction” in the overall U.S. presence in the country that has become the main base of the al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) terror group, said George Little, the chief Pentagon spokesman.
The U.S. military “continues to have personnel on the ground in Yemen to support the U.S. State Department and monitor the security situation,” Little said.
Britain also shut down its embassy in Sanaa and evacuated staff following what the State Department termed the "the continued potential for terrorist attacks." The State Department urged all other Americans in Yemen to leave by commercial flights because of the "extremely high" security threat level.
The Yemeni government sent tanks and troops into the streets to set up checkpoints around Sanaa following reports that a U.S. drone strike had killed four suspected al-Qaida militants in eastern Yemen. Yemeni officials also said that a Yemeni helicopter had been shot down near an al-Qaida stronghold, killing all eight aboard.
The amphibious ships Kearsarge and San Antonio, carrying more than 1,000 Marines, were also cruising off Djibouti in the event more evacuations from Yemen were necessary, U.S. military officials said.
The Kearsarge and the San Antonio had been on station at the northern end of the Red Sea to respond to emergencies in the ongoing turmoil in Egypt, but were recently moved south to the 20-mile-wide Bab-el-Mandeb Strait separating Djibouti from Yemen.
Military officials said the presence of the Kearsarge and the San Antonio was part of their regularly scheduled deployment to the region, but the ships were prepared to assist with evacuations if necessary.
The evacuation of personnel and the presence of Navy ships signaled a “theater-wide posture involving all the services and a few combatant commands” since the U.S. began shutting down embassies and consulates across North Africa, the Mideast and Afghanistan last weekend in reaction to U.S. intelligence reports on threats from al-Qaida offshoot groups.
The Yemeni government on Monday put out a list of 25 persons considered to be “highly active” terrorists and offered $23,000 rewards for information leading to their capture.
The list included Ibrahim Suleiman al-Rubaish, a Saudi national and a spiritual leader for al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, who was captured in Pakistan in 2001 and transferred to the detention facility at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Al-Rubaish was released to Saudi Arabia in 2006 but escaped from a rehabilitation program and fled to Yemen, according to Yemeni officials.