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Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

U.S. Bails on Citizens Stranded in Yemen

DETROIT (CN) - The United States told citizens stranded in war-torn Yemen that they're on their own, as bombing from regional powers intensifies warfare in that remote but strategically important country, according to two federal lawsuits.

More than five dozen citizens sued the president and secretary of state Thursday in District of Columbia and Detroit federal courts, asking for help.

Yemen has been in chaos for months in a struggle between the poor country's political elite.

U.S. ally President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi fled the capital, Sana'a, in February, to Aden, a port city on the Gulf of Aden, which opens to the Arabian Sea.

Houthi rebels drove him from the capital. The Houthis are Shi'a Muslims.

Yemen's armies, governments and security forces are split, in the main, between those two factions.

Both claim to oppose al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which controls areas in south and southeast Yemen.

The so-called Islamic State, which claims to be Sunni, is at war with the Houthis, who claim to be Shi'a.

The Houthis are supported by Iran in today's carnage.

Iranians consider themselves Persians, not Arabians.

The Houthis' and Iran's opponents are supported by the regional powers of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco and the United States.

Sixty-eight plaintiffs in the April 9 lawsuits, many of them children, seek an emergency writ of mandamus and injunctive relief.

The families say that Pentagon regulations say that the country has "a clear and nondiscretionary duty to protect and evacuate U.S. citizens and nationals in the threatened areas overseas."

Saudi Arabia and other countries, with the United States lending substantial logistical support, began a military operation on March 25 against the Houthis in northern Yemen.

Saudi officials claim the Houthis are a proxy force for Iran.

As war intensified, Saudi Arabia imposed a no-fly zone, which has left the dozens, perhaps hundreds or thousands of U.S. citizens stranded in a war zone with no way of leaving on commercial flights.

Yet the Department of State issued a travel warning encouraging U.S. citizens in Yemen to evacuate themselves via commercial transportation.

The plaintiffs say that Yemen is on the brink of collapse and they are in imminent danger with no options.

More than 200 people have been killed in recent days on the streets of Aden, the country's largest city.

"At least 93 civilians were reported to have been killed since March 27, 2015 and a further 364 injured in Sana'a, Sa'da, Dhale, Hudayda and Lahj, among whom were 'dozens' killed in an airstrike on the Al-Mazraq camp for internally displaced persons that was established by the United Nations in 2009," the United Nations said in a statement.

The stranded U.S. citizens say they were told to evacuate on a French frigate "that can only accommodate a 'few hundred people,' and cannot even dock at the port ..."

"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," according to the Detroit lawsuit.

When President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry were apprised of the deteriorating situation, they suspended Embassy operations and evacuated staff from the country, the complaints state.

Russia, China, India, Pakistan and Somalia have all evacuated their citizens from Yemen.

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said on April 3: "We have been warning for I think a decade now that American citizens not travel to Yemen. So that's not a reason why not to; I'm just reminding people of that. The second is that in each of these cases, we have to make a decision based on the security situation and what is feasible to do. And given the situation in Yemen is quite dangerous and unpredictable, doing something like sending in military assets even for an evacuation could put U.S. citizens' lives at greater risk. In some other places we've helped evacuate U.S. citizens. For example, airports were still open and you could evacuate people on commercial airlines. Obviously, that's not the case in Yemen. So we're continuing to evaluate the security situation, and we're continuing to look at what our options are, but at this point, no plan - no change in plans."

But the 68 named plaintiffs list a plethora of past U.S. emergency evacuations in similar conflict zones, including Lebanon, Sudan, Egypt, Haiti, Albania, Liberia, Bangui, and Vietnam.

The stranded citizens claim that the failure to evacuate them violates Executive Order 12656, the Assignment of Emergency Preparedness Responsibilities.

That order states that the federal government "is responsible for the protection or evacuation of U.S. citizens and nationals abroad and for safeguarding their overseas property abroad, in consultation with the Secretaries of Defense and Health and Human Services."

The plaintiffs claim their Fifth Amendment rights are being violated because they are being discriminated against on the basis of their Yemeni national origin.

"The U.S. government's refusal to conduct emergency evacuation operations in Yemen is in furtherance of its blatant and discriminatory policy of targeting and stripping U.S. citizens of Yemeni national origin of their guaranteed citizenship rights under the law," the Detroit complaint states.

Plaintiffs in both lawsuits want to be evacuated from Yemen ass soon as possible.

The Detroit plaintiffs are represented by Lena Masri, with the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

The District of Columbia plaintiffs are represented by Jennifer Wicks, with the CAIR office in Washington, D.C.

One longtime human rights lawyer who has followed the situation in Yemen told Courthouse News: "The Embassy told them to stay home and duck. It's a disgrace."

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