US urges Yemen's Houthis to release US Embassy's detained local staff

US urges Yemen's Houthis to release US Embassy's detained local staff
The US has urged Yemen's Houthi rebels to release detained US Embassy staffers, after the rebels seized the headquarters of the embassy last October.
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Houthi rebels detained dozens of former staffers at the US embassy in the country [Getty]

The United States on Thursday urged Yemen's Houthi rebels to release all US Embassy local staffers that they had detained, following the death of one of them after seven months in captivity.

The Iran-backed Houthis seized the headquarters of the US Embassy in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa last October. They detained dozens of former staffers, many of whom were later released but at least 11 remained in the rebels' custody.

Yemen, the Arab world's poorest nation, has been fractured by a brutal civil war since 2014, when the Houthis seized Sanaa and much of northern Yemen, forcing the internationally recognised government into exile. A Saudi-led coalition entered the war a year later to try and restore the government to power. Washington shut down its embassy in 2015.

In a tweet, the embassy, now operating outside of Yemen, said it was mourning Abdulhameed Al-Ajami, a retired employee of the US Agency for International Development, describing him as “an innocent grandfather” and “a proud Yemeni” dedicated to educating children in his country.

“We extend our condolences to his loved ones and call on the Houthis to end this injustice and release every single current and former US Embassy employee now," it said.

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On Wednesday, the US State Department issued a statement confirming Al-Ajami's death but did not mention any details on the time or the circumstances of his death.

“The United States has been unceasing in its diplomatic efforts to secure the release of our Yemeni staff in Sana’a. We demand the Houthis release detained current and former US employees,” spokesman Ned Price said.

The Houthis never charged Al-Ajami or any of the other captives or brought them to trial.

The former USAID worker was already suffering from moderate kidney failure at the time of his detention and his condition worsened in recent weeks but he had no access to medication or medical help, according to an international aid worker. The aid worker spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to discuss the detentions with the media.

The war in Yemen has created one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises and over the years turned into a regional proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. More than 150,000 people have been killed, including over 14,500 civilians.

The fighting has stalemated and the warring sides agreed to a two-month cease-fire, which expires next week. The United Nations is now pushing to extend the truce.

Occasional violence has persisted, however, On Thursday, at least five civilians were killed in the southern port city of Aden when a man dropped a hand grenade in a crowded market. The blast also wounded at least 20 people.