Sanaa: The United States, Britain and France said they were closing their Yemen embassies Wednesday over security fears, with the Americans destroying their mission`s contents and abandoning vehicles at the airport.
The hasty evacuation came as thousands took to the streets for rival demonstrations over a Shiite militia takeover last week that has been widely condemned as a coup.
Long on the front line of the war against Al-Qaeda, Yemen has descended into chaos since the militia, known as Huthis, seized Sanaa in September and took power last week.
Protests against the Huthis erupted last Wednesday, with thousands demonstrating in cities including Baida, Ibb, Hudeidah and the main southern city of Aden.
In Sanaa, the militiamen fired warning shots and used batons and daggers to disperse hundreds rallying against them, with organisers saying four people were wounded.
But thousands of Huthi supporters also gathered in Change Square, the epicentre of Arab Spring-inspired protests in 2011 that forced veteran strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh from power.
Shiite militia leader Abdulmalik al-Huthi had urged supporters to rally on the fourth anniversary of the uprising against Saleh.
The deep divisions in Yemen, which is beset by tribal rivalries and awash in arms, have hampered efforts to bring the strategically important country out of crisis.
The United Nations has demanded the reinstatement of Saleh`s Western-backed successor President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi -- who is under effective house arrest -- but its efforts to broker a deal have failed.Since their takeover, the Huthis have seized more territory in Sunni-majority Yemen, sparking fears of a backlash from the country`s powerful Al-Qaeda branch.
The United States said it was closing its Sanaa embassy due to the "deteriorating security situation" and evacuating its staff. It urged US citizens to leave or defer travel to Yemen.
Marine guards at the US mission destroyed weapons, documents, computers, telephones and other sensitive materials before the evacuation, local employees told AFP.
A wrecking crane was used to destroy numerous vehicles, and those used to evacuate the embassy staff were seized by militiamen at Sanaa airport.
They included three cars used by Ambassador Matthew Tueller and his staff, and more than 25 vehicles used by the Marines in charge of security, airport sources said.
Militiamen were later seen taking up positions around the embassy.
Britain too evacuated its diplomats, with a senior official saying: "Regrettably we now judge that our embassy staff and premises are at increased risk."
France called on its 100 or so citizens in Yemen to leave the country and said it would close its embassy from Friday over mounting security fears.
The Arab Spring protests had raised hopes of democratic reform after more than three decades of iron-fisted rule by Saleh.
But his departure from office in early 2012 left a power vacuum that the Huthis and Al-Qaeda have vied to fill.
Washington has been at pains to stress its battle against the jihadists` Yemen branch will go on regardless of the outcome of the power struggle in Sanaa.
US President Barack Obama vowed on January 25 not to let up in Washington`s campaign against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which claimed responsibility for last month`s killings at French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
Washington considers AQAP the jihadist network`s most dangerous branch after repeated attacks and attempts against targets in the West.The exodus of Western diplomats came despite pleas from Huthi that the security situation in the capital was stable.
"Some people are raising concerns among diplomatic missions so that they flee the country," the militia leader said on Tuesday.
"These fears are unfounded. The security situation is stable."
Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdolahian also criticised the "hasty action" of closing the embassies, insisting the Huthis were fighting "corruption and terrorism".
Huthi, often accused of receiving support from Tehran, has repeatedly portrayed his militia`s advance into Sunni-majority areas as a battle against jihadists and called for Western support.
But Hadi loyalists insist only his restoration can prevent a collapse of central authority that will hamstring the war against the jihadists in Sunni areas.
UN envoy Jamal Benomar brokered talks between the opposing factions this week but with no signs of progress.
He had been due to brief the UN Security Council on his efforts Wednesday but the briefing was postponed until the next day.