SANAA, Yemen (AP) - Yemen was thrust back into the forefront of the international fight against terrorism Tuesday when the U.S. and Britain evacuated embassy staff due to a threatened attack, a suspected U.S. drone killed four alleged members of al-Qaida, and militants shot down a Yemeni army helicopter.
The U.S. military evacuated non-essential U.S. government personnel due to the high risk that has triggered temporary shutdowns of 19 American diplomatic posts across the Middle East and Africa.
The State Department said in a travel warning that it ordered the evacuation "due to the continued potential for terrorist attacks" and said U.S. citizens in Yemen should leave immediately because of an "extremely high" security threat level.
"As staff levels at the Embassy are restricted, our ability to assist U.S. citizens in an emergency and provide routine consular services remains limited and may be further constrained by the fluid security situation," the travel warning said. The U.S. Embassy is located in Sanaa, the capital of Yemen.
As Westerners flew out of the country, Yemeni authorities launched a wide investigation into the al-Qaida threat to multiple potential targets in the impoverished Arab nation. Security officials said they believed the terror network was seeking retaliation for a U.S.-backed military offensive that has dealt serious setbacks to the terror network's most active branch, including the death earlier this year of its No. 2 leader.
Yemeni security officials said a suspected U.S. drone strike at about 2 a.m. local time Tuesday killed four alleged al-Qaida members in a volatile eastern province of the country. The drone fired a missile at a car carrying the four men, setting it on fire and killing all of them, the officials said.
The Yemeni army, meanwhile, surrounded foreign installations, government offices and the airport with tanks and troops in the nation's capital, Sanaa, as well as the strategic Babal-Mandeb straits at the entrance to the Red Sea in the southern Arabian Peninsula, drawing parallels with security measures following the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Aden harbor that killed 17 American sailors.
Authorities also set up checkpoints across Sanaa, searching cars and individuals, especially after night fell. Top government officials, along with military and security commanders, were told to stay vigilant and limit their movements.
A U.S. intelligence official and a Mideast diplomat told The Associated Press that the widespread embassy closures were triggered by the interception of a secret message between al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahri and Nasser al-Wahishi, the leader of the Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, about plans for a major terror attack. Zawahri also made a public statement on July 30 that exhorted Muslims to kill Americans "in every spot on Earth."
Yemeni investigators looking into the threat said they believe the motive of the attack was retaliation for the killing of Saudi-born Saeed al-Shihri, who was released from the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay after nearly six years and later became the No. 2 al-Qaida leader in Yemen. Al-Shihri was critically wounded in a November drone strike and later died of his wounds, the militant group acknowledged.
The terror network has suffered a series of setbacks after the military launched an offensive in June with the help of U.S. forces that has succeeded in uprooting it from strongholds in the south. The group had taken advantage of the instability after the Arab Spring wave of revolutions that led to the resignation of Yemen's longtime leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Yemen's current president, Abdo Rabby Mansour Hadi, met with President Barack Obama at the White House last week, where both leaders cited strong counterterrorism cooperation.
Pentagon Press Secretary George Little said the U.S. Air Force transported State Department personnel out of Sanaa early Tuesday. The department said in a travel warning that it had ordered the departure of non-emergency U.S. government personnel "due to the continued potential for terrorist attacks," adding that U.S. citizens should leave immediately because of an "extremely high" security threat level.
A senior defense official said that between 50 and 100 diplomatic personnel were flown from Sanaa in a military transport to Ramstein Air Base in Germany. The official was not authorized to discuss the information publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity. The official said dozens of military troops remain in Yemen, including those providing security at the embassy and others training Yemeni troops.
Britain's Foreign Office also said it evacuated all staff from its embassy due to increased security concerns. The Foreign Office said the staff were "temporarily withdrawn to the U.K." And the Dutch Foreign Ministry has issued a call for about 40 of its citizens to leave Yemen, although it did not say whether that included its six embassy workers.
Yemeni authorities also released the names of 25 wanted al-Qaida suspects Monday, saying they were planning terrorist attacks in Sanaa and other cities.
Officials say potential U.S. targets in Sanaa could include the embassy and other buildings used by the United States to house personnel, as well as a military facility a few miles outside used by U.S. aircraft.
The government statement said security forces will pay $23,000 to anyone coming forward with information leading to the arrest of any of the wanted men.