The State Department has a Yemen problem beyond the fall of the country to Houthi rebels and evacuation of U.S. diplomatic facilities.
It’s told U.S. citizens to get out, but they can’t. And the first U.S. citizen was just killed in the conflict: Jamal al-Labani of Hayward, Calif., was killed by shrapnel from a mortar round in Aden.
His family told CNN that he was trying to get out of the country, as directed by the State Department, but didn’t know how. He’d talked about crossing the border by land into Oman and then flying to Egypt, but was killed before he could put that plan into action.
The State Department suspended embassy operations back on Feb. 11. On April 1, the embassy sent a message to U.S. citizens in Yemen indicating there were “no plans for a U.S. government-sponsored evacuation of U.S. citizens at this time” and encouraging U.S. citizens “to monitor the news and seek available departure options from Yemen, via air, land, or sea.”
The travel warning for Yemen was updated on April 3. “We encourage all U.S. citizens to shelter in a secure location until they are able to depart safely. U.S. citizens wishing to depart should do so via commercial transportation options when they become available.”
An emergency message sent to citizens on Sunday said they “may be able to leave Yemen from either Aden or Mokha and cross into Djibouti by boat.”
“The Djibouti Foreign Minister confirms that Djibouti stands ready to receive any nationality and all evacuees from Yemen into Djibouti. Anyone who wishes to leave should possess either a U.S. or Yemeni passport,” the message continued. “Currently, there is a French frigate just off the coast of Aden called the Acronit. It’s a smaller boat that can accommodate a few hundred people and its mission is to transport all people who have a passport and can get to the boat. The boat is not in the port, therefore people will have to find their own way to get out to it. The window of time for when the boat may leave is uncertain.”
The situation grew so desperate that the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), and Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC) launched StuckInYemen.com to gather information about Americans who need help evacuating from Yemen.
“All citizens are entitled to protection from their government. The United States government has an obligation to protect their citizens in foreign nations. This is one of the fundamental reasons for the existence of U.S. consultates and embassies in foreign nations. Unfortunately, the United States government and embassies abandoned Yemeni Americans in February 2015,” the site states, offering an intake form that includes questions about whether the embassy gave proper travel documents to citizens before it closed.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf clarified at today’s press briefing “it’s not that we can’t” evacuate Americans, as other countries are doing for their citizens stuck in Yemen, but they’re not.
“The airports are still closed, is my understanding, which is part of the challenge when we evacuate citizens from countries. Sometimes we do it commercially through aircraft or through chartered aircraft, so that’s obviously not a possibility at this time there,” Harf said.
“When you said that you alerted them to opportunities to leave the country, what are those opportunities now? Swim?” a reporter asked.
“We are alerting people to — these are mainly maritime opportunities,” Harf replied, referring to the boat that wouldn’t be able to dock.
Today India offered to help evacuate Americans from Yemen, including with flights out of Sana’a and ships from Aden. The first rescue flights are scheduled to leave Tuesday.
“The Department of State cautions that U.S. citizens should consider carefully the risks of traveling to or within Sana’a and Aden in order to board evacuation transport given security conditions in both cities,” the U.S. embassy said in its message to U.S. citizens with India embassy contact information.