The State Department said on Thursday that the Iran-backed Houthi insurgency abducted at least 25 Yemenis who work for the United States. President Joe Biden lifted the Houthis’ designation as a terrorist organization as one of his first actions in office.
The State Department claimed most have been released, but “several” employees of what used to be the U.S. embassy in Sana’a – which has not been functioning normally since the Houthis seized the city in 2015 – are still being held captive. The Houthis have also occupied the building that used to house the embassy.
The Biden State Department seems reluctant to make any statement about the hostages unless directly asked about the situation by a media organization. As of Friday morning, no official statement about the situation had been posted by the State Department or White House.
When Al Arabiya, a Saudi news agency, asked for a comment about the detention of local U.S. government employees and seizure of U.S. property by the Houthis, the Biden State Department responded by email, “We are concerned that Yemeni staff of the U.S. Embassy in Sana’a continue to be detained without explanation and we call for their immediate release.”
The State email said most of the detainees have been released, but confirmed, “the Houthis continue to detain additional Yemeni employees of the Embassy.”
The State Department confirmed to Al Arabiya that Houthi fighters have “breached” the former U.S. embassy compound in Sana’a.
“We call on the Houthis to immediately vacate it and return all seized property,” the email said.
State Department spokesman Ned Price gave a substantially similar answer when asked about Yemen at a press briefing on Tuesday:
What I can say at this point is that we are extremely concerned by reports of detentions of some of our local Yemeni employees in Sana’a, and we call for their immediate release. We have been unceasing in our behind-the-scenes diplomatic efforts to secure their release. We’ve seen some progress and we’re continuing to work this critical issue. The majority of those who have been detained are no longer in custody. 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.
Pressed by a reporter for more details of how many U.S. employees were detained and why, Price responded: “I don’t have any update I’m in a position to relay at this time. But again, the majority of them have been released, and when we have more details to share, we will.”
The Houthis reportedly rounded up 25 or more Yemeni employees of the former U.S. Embassy in Sana’a and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) over the past three weeks. The insurgents did not provide any public explanation for the detentions.
Some early reports on the situation suggested an embassy hostage crisis similar to Tehran in 1979 or the assault on the Benghazi consulate in 2012, but the Sana’a compound has not been an active U.S. embassy since the Iran-backed insurgents overthrew the legitimate government of Yemen and drove it out of the capital six years ago.
The American ambassador and most staffers were long ago relocated to Saudi Arabia. The internationally-recognized government of Yemen is currently headquartered in the city of Aden, which is largely controlled by a third faction called the Southern Transitional Council, a secessionist group that formed an alliance with the Yemeni government in 2019.
As the State Department indicated, the former embassy compound remains U.S. government property. A State spokesperson told the Washington Post on Friday that some of the Yemeni employees kidnapped by the Houthis are “security personnel who had been guarding the exterior of the compound.”
The Houthis launched a brutal offensive in February to capture the rest of the country and destroy the U.S.-supported government in Aden, which received a visit from U.S. Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking just four days ago.
The regional military coalition led by Saudi Arabia to support the Yemeni government is fighting a fierce battle against the Houthi rebels for control of Marib, the last remaining government stronghold in the northern part of the country.
The Saudi coalition claimed it killed at least 125 Houthi fighters with airstrikes on Thursday, bringing total insurgent casualties from the Marib offensive to over 3,000, and also destroyed some of the Houthis’ Iran-supplied missiles and drones with strikes near Sanaa and another northern city, Saada.
The United Nations on Thursday announced sanctions against three Houthi leaders over the bloody Marib offensive, which has severely hindered humanitarian efforts to aid the sick and starving Yemeni population, and also because the Houthis have launched cross-border missile and drone attacks on civilian targets in Saudi Arabia.
The sanctions, which also covered arms smuggling and Houthi theft of assets from the people of Yemen, were imposed at the request of the British delegation to the U.N.
Also on Thursday, a car bomb in Aden killed a pregnant Yemeni journalist named Rasha Abdullah al-Harazi and severely wounded her husband Mahmoud al-Atmi, also a journalist.
Al-Harazi worked for two news channels owned by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a member of the Saudi coalition fighting the Houthis, and also for a U.S.-Saudi media collaboration called Bloomberg Asharq.
Her husband Mahmoud al-Atmi is a contributor to Al Arabiya and Saudi news channel Al-Hadath. Al-Atmi has reported death threats from the Houthis and recently learned Houthi operatives were attempting to locate his home in Aden and obtain a description of his car.
The Houthis were officially designated as a terrorist organization by the Trump administration, but President Joe Biden rescinded that designation soon after taking office.
The Biden administration has occasionally expressed “concern” and “alarm” about Houthi terrorist activity since then, and ostensibly became “fed up” and “horrified” with the insurgents after they slaughtered civilians and children during their Marib offensive.