By ELLEN KNICKMEYER and SAMY MAGDY
WASHINGTON (AP) — Houthi rebels in Yemen have arrested another official of the long-closed U.S. embassy, bringing to at least 11 the number of local former U.S. embassy employees detained by the rebel group, according to testimony. Yemeni officials and others.
The Houthis, an Iran-backed group that controls the capital, Sanaa, and much of northern Yemen, arrested a former US embassy press secretary last week, a rights lawyer says of the man in Sanaa, Abdel-Majeed Sabra, and a family member of a detainee. The family member spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
Sabra said the former embassy press secretary was being held at the premises of the Houthi-run Security and Intelligence Authority. It is unclear whether the Houthis have charged the man or any other detainees of US embassy staff, he said.
Sabra said the last staff member was arrested a month after the rebel group arrested its former deputy at the embassy.
The Houthi rebels took the last embassy staff member home on Tuesday to search him and again took him away.
The State Department said in an email to The Associated Press this week that the US government was “relentless” in its efforts to secure the release of local embassy staff members.
Washington closed its embassy in Yemen, the poorest country on the Arabian Peninsula, in 2015 as conflict fractured the country.
The Houthis had left their base in the north the previous year at a time of growing political unrest, seizing the capital and other territories. A military coalition led by Saudi Arabia went to war in 2015.
The Houthis, with growing support from Iran, were able to push back the Saudi-led military coalition. The UN and aid agencies call the overall situation in Yemen the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, with millions of Yemenis vulnerable to starvation.
The Houthis have rebuffed repeated attempts by the Biden administration to bring them into peace talks and accuse the United States of backing the coalition.
The Houthis seized the headquarters of the US Embassy last October. They detained dozens of former staff, many of whom were later released.
With the latest detention, however, at least 11 staff members of the closed embassy remain in Houthi custody, according to a security official and a family member of the detainees. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly, and the family member for fear of reprisal.
UN agencies confirmed late last year that the Houthis also arrested two of their employees in Sanaa in early November. UNESCO and the UN human rights office said no legal reason had been given for their detention.
In the past, both sides in the war have used detainees as leverage in negotiations, including prisoner exchanges.
The new detention comes as the Biden administration considers renaming the Houthis or individual Houthi leaders as terrorists, a step that carries stiff US government penalties for those who do business with them.
This is after the Houthis stepped up cross-border drone and missile attacks on the UAE, after suffering heavy territorial losses in the fighting.
The United States tightened sanctions on Wednesday against what it said was an Iran-aligned illicit smuggling ring helping fund the Houthis, but appeared to stop short of the terrorist designation.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are pushing for terrorist designation. Some Americans and Yemenis say it could deter the Houthis from attacks and help them get into peace talks.
Humanitarian organizations and some Democratic lawmakers say the financial penalties associated with the designation would have minimal impact on isolated Houthi leaders, but would drive food suppliers and shippers out of the country, risking starvation for millions. Twelve Democratic lawmakers wrote to Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday urging against the terrorist designation.
Magdy reported from Cairo.