WASHINGTON, District of Columbia (AFP) – The United States and its allies pulled diplomats out of Yemen and stepped up security at missions across the Middle East amid fears of an imminent Al-Qaeda attack.
Washington has closed 19 embassies and consulates in the Middle East and Africa, citing intercepted communications among militants, reportedly including an attack order from Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.
While the closures span cities across the Arab world, the focus of concern has been Yemen, where American forces are fighting a drone war against Al-Qaeda’s powerful regional affiliate.
U.S. President Barack Obama, appearing on a late-night comedy show Tuesday, said his administration was taking “every precaution” but that Americans should not panic.
“If people are paying attention, checking with the State Department or embassy, going on the website before you travel, find out what kind of precautions you should be taking, then I think it still makes sense for people to take vacations,” he said.
“They just have to make sure that they’re doing so in a prudent way.”
The Yemeni government, however, issued a strong response to the diplomatic withdrawal, saying it recognized the safety fears but that the pullout “serves the interests of the extremists.”
Such a step “undermines the exceptional cooperation between Yemen and the international alliance against terrorism,” the foreign ministry in Sanaa said.
Local authorities had “taken all necessary precautions to ensure the safety and security of foreign missions,” it stressed.
Some 75 non-essential staffers at the U.S. embassy in Sanaa exited on a military plane, an American official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
The plane, accompanied by a support aircraft, flew to the U.S. air base in Ramstein, Germany, the official said.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the 19 offices are closed to the public, but they continue to provide emergency U.S. citizen services.
“They are instructed to close for normal operations through Saturday, August 10,” she added, noting that some staff would remain.
“This decision and the announcement this morning was based on a response to an immediate specific threat.”
The State Department warned U.S. citizens not to travel to Yemen and strongly urged any already there to leave “immediately.”
The Pentagon said it still had personnel on the ground “to support the U.S. State Department and monitor the security situation.”
U.S. ally Britain, meanwhile, announced the temporary withdrawal of all personnel from its embassy in Yemen, saying it would remain closed “until staff are able to return.”
France and Germany have also closed their missions and other European countries have taken extra precautions. Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands advised their citizens to leave.