The State Department is updating its plans to evacuate the U.S. embassy in Yemen's capital city of Sana'a amid growing violence in the country between military and rebel forces, CNN reported.
Although U.S. Defense Department officials had been watching the situation for several weeks, the violence has "grown more serious" over the past several days, according to CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr, and now included fighting "around the airport in the capital."
"When you can't rely on commercial air traffic to get diplomats out, that's when the military begins to watch very carefully," Starr said Tuesday on CNN's "Legal View with Ashleigh Banfield."
Any request to evacuate would have to come from the U.S. ambassador to Yemen, Starr said, but added "that has not yet happened." She said after the 2012 bombing of the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, American officials don't "wait around" for violence to escalate.
However, Starr said if the U.S. did close the embassy, diplomats would "lose their window into understanding what al-Qaida is up to in that country (and) any plots against the U.S."
"Sitting in the middle of all of this — al-Qaida. The al-Qaida affiliate in Yemen is one of the most deadly, one of the most capable of potentially attacking the U.S. It's a big reason the State Department wants to keep the embassy open," Starr said.
There already had been some departures of embassy personnel from Yemen, Starr said, adding the priority of the State Department was "to keep U.S. diplomats safe" in what she called "a mess, a soup of problems for the U.S. right now."
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On Monday, the State Department said it would reduce the number of American staff at the U.S. Embassy in Yemen due to deteriorating security in the country.
Monday's drawdown in embassy staffing coincided with the Treasury imposing sanctions on Yemen's former president and two military commanders linked to the powerful Shiite Houthi rebel group and comes amid a rise in anti-American protests.
The sanctions were imposed after the U.N. Security Council on Friday added the same three men to its sanctions list for threatening the peace security and stability of Yemen.
Thousands of Houthis and supporters of the ex-president demonstrated against the U.S. on Friday and demanded that the American ambassador leave the country. Despite the staffing reduction, the State Department said the embassy in Sana remains open.
Clashes at Sanaa airport between Yemeni police and Shiite rebel gunmen left three dead on Tuesday, a security official said.
Two policemen and a civilian were killed in the clashes that erupted overnight between police and armed men based at the airport since the northern rebels seized the capital unopposed on Sept. 21.
The gunfight caused a brief interruption of air traffic, the official said.
It followed a strike by airport staff who demanded the withdrawal of the rebel gunmen from the airport.
Complaints have recently been made by Western embassies that rebels stationed at the airport have opened their diplomatic mail, violating international conventions, sources at Yemen's foreign ministry said.
The militiamen have also been insisting on boarding planes for inspection, aviation sources said, causing several airlines to delay resuming flights to Sanaa that were suspended on September 19 for security reasons.
The rebels remain the main force in the capital.
Information from Reuters and the Associated Press was used in this report.
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