U.S. condemns Houthis' detention of U.N. workers in Yemen

The United States on Wednesday condemned the recent detention of 13 U.N. workers in Yemen by the Iran-backed Houthis. File Photo by Yahya Arhab/EPA-EFE

June 12 (UPI) -- The United States "strongly condemns" the Houthis' recent detention of more than a dozen United Nations workers, the State Department said Wednesday.

A total of 13 Yemeni employees of United Nations agencies have been detained over the last week by the Iran proxy militia that has been attacking vessels transiting the Red Sea in the Gulf of Aden amid Israel's war against another Tehran-backed group, Hamas, in Gaza.

The United Nations has identified the detained employees as six workers from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, two from UNESCO and one each from the U.N. Development Program, U.N. Children's Fund, the World Food Program, World Health Organization and the Office of the Special Envoy.

At least 11 civil society workers were also arrested, it said.

The Houthis have claimed that the detained were part of "an American-Israeli spy network" that has operated in the country for decades.

Maj. Gen. Abdel Hakim Al Khaiwani said in a televised address carried by Houthi Al Masirah media on Monday that the spy network had operated from the American embassy until it closed in 2015. After which "the elements of the espionage network continued to implement the same sabotage agenda under the cover of international organizations."

State Department spokesman Matthew Miller rejected the accusations, saying in a statement Wednesday that the Houthis "are seeking to use disinformation to shift blame to the United States and other outside actors for their own failures."

"These Houthi actions reflect a blatant disregard for the dignity of the Yemeni people and individuals who -- contrary to the Houthis' lies -- have dedicated themselves to their country's betterment," he said.

"Their efforts stand in stark contrast to the actions of the Houthis who have held them without justification for more than two-and-a-half years."

The United Nations has said that it is working to secure the immediate release of their detained personnel, with its secretary-general, Antonio Guterres condemning all arbitrary detention of civilians.

"I demand the immediate and unconditional release of all detained U.N. personnel," he said Tuesday in a statement.

Yemen has been submerged in civil war since 2014 when the Houthis seized the capital of Sana'a. Since then, the Houthis have been fighting the internationally recognized government of Yemen and the Saudi-led coalition forces.

It has turned its attentions to Israel as the Middle Eastern country wages war against Hamas, attacking military and shipping vessels in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. The militia says the attacks are in solidarity with the Palestinian people.

Human Rights Watch states that the Houthis have "disappeared, arbitrarily detained and torture" hundreds of civilians, including U.N. and nongovernmental agency workers, since the start of the conflict.

"The Houthis should immediately release any U.N. employees and workers for other independent groups they have detained because of their human rights and humanitarian work and stop arbitrarily detaining and forcibly disappearing people," Niku Jafarnia, a Yemen and Bahrain researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

"Such detentions not only attack the rights of these individuals but also undermine essential humanitarian and human rights work in Yemen at a time when the majority of Yemenis do not have adequate access to basic necessities like food and water."

The United Nations said Tuesday that the Houthis detained four additional U.N. staff members between 2021 and 2023 who have been held incommunicado.