SANAA (Reuters) – The United States told its citizens in Yemen on Tuesday to leave immediately and ordered the evacuation of non-essential U.S. government staff because of the threat of terrorist attacks.
The State Department announcement was the latest warning since Washington issued a worldwide travel alert on Friday that prompted the closure of several Western embassies in Yemen and U.S. missions across the Middle East and Africa.
Based on intelligence including intercepted communication between al Qaeda leaders, Washington has warned of possible attacks in the region.
Some officials pinpointed Yemen, home to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), one of the most active affiliates of the network established by Osama bin Laden and where the United States uses drones to hunt militants.
On Tuesday, its latest sortie killed four.
“The Department urges U.S. citizens to defer travel to Yemen and those U.S. citizens currently living in Yemen to depart immediately,” the statement posted on its website said.
“On August 6, 2013, the Department of State ordered the departure of non-emergency U.S. government personnel from Yemen due to the continued potential for terrorist attacks,” it added.
Britain said on Tuesday it had withdrawn all staff from its embassy in the capital Sanaa, adding there was “a very high threat of kidnap from armed tribes, criminal and terrorists”.
Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu-Bakr al-Qirbi criticized the measures but said they would not affect relations with the United States.
“Unfortunately, these measures, although they are taken to protect their citizens, in reality they serve the goals that the terrorist elements are seeking to achieve,” Qirbi told Reuters.
“Yemen had taken these threats seriously and had taken all the necessary measures to protect all the foreign missions in the country,” he added.
Restoring stability in Yemen has become a priority for the United States and its Gulf allies, concerned about al Qaeda militants operating in a country that adjoins top oil export Saudi Arabia and overlooks major shipping lanes.
The country’s Supreme Security Committee earlier issued a statement saying it had received information that al Qaeda militants were plotting to carry out attacks on public facilities during the Muslim Eid al-Fitr holiday this week.
The committee also published a list of 25 senior al Qaeda militants it said were being sought by security forces and offered a bounty of 5 million Yemeni riyals ($23,000) for information leading to their capture.
“Information has become available that terrorist elements of the al Qaeda network were planning to carry out terrorist acts targeting public installations and facilities, especially in a number of Yemeni provinces, in the latter days of the holy month of Ramadan and during the Eid al-Fitr holiday,” it said.
AQAP had previously targeted international airlines and plotted other attacks from Yemen, U.S. officials say.
Earlier on Tuesday, a U.S. drone fired five missiles at a car traveling in the central Maarib province killing all four of its occupants, local tribal leaders said.
The state news agency Saba said four al Qaeda militants were killed in the attack.
The New York Times reported on Monday that the closure of the embassies was the result of intercepted electronic communications between Ayman al-Zawahri, who replaced bin Laden as head of al Qaeda, and Nasser al-Wuhaishi, the head of AQAP.
U.S. sources said that while some type of message between Zawahri and AQAP was intercepted recently, there were also other streams of intelligence that contributed to the security alert, which was prompted by a threat from AQAP.