Photo supplied by Mohammed Alazzani

Californian killed in Yemen's strife as US urged to help citizens flee

Jamal al-Labani, a father of three, was returning home from mosque on Tuesday when hit by shelling, family says

A 40-year-old Yemeni-American man was killed in Aden this week, his family told Al Jazeera, making him the first reported U.S. citizen fatality of violence that has spiraled in the strife-torn country in recent weeks.

Jamal al-Labani, a father of three, from Oakland, California, was returning home from mosque on Tuesday evening with his 14-year-old Yemeni nephew when both were hit by mortar shelling, according to his cousin Mohammed Alazzani, who spoke to Al Jazeera from the San Francisco Bay Area. Both died as a result of injuries sustained.

The incident highlights the plight Yemeni-Americans face in trying to escape the bloodshed, said community advocates, who have called on the U.S. State Department to better help U.S. citizens get out of the country.

Alazzani said he received word of his cousin’s death on Tuesday from relatives who witnessed the incident.

The mosque is about a three-minute walk from where Labani was staying.

While walking back from the mosque, a sudden mortar shelling by Houthi fighters hit the road, Alazzani said. The fighters had advanced into the city.

“Our cousins were shouting at them to run because the firing began so suddenly. They began running… but they were hit,” Alazzani said. 

The southern city has been the last major holdout of fighters loyal to the Saudi-backed President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who fled Aden a week ago and has watched from Riyadh as the vestiges of his authority have crumbled.

Photo of the deceased Jamal al-Labani.
Photo supplied by Mohammed Alazzani

A gas-station owner, Labani traveled to Yemen about two months ago out of concern for family members living there. His wife and 2-year-old daughter were living in Aden, and Labani had made two unsuccessful attempts to flee the country over the last few weeks. “He was trying to find a way out because he felt his family was in danger,” his cousin said.  

In addition to his wife and daughter, Labani also leaves behind two sons, aged 13 and 16, from a previous marriage. Both live with their mother in California.

Yemen is currently gripped by political violence, with Saudi Arabia launching airstrikes in the capital, Sanaa, aimed at pushing back Houthi rebels who took control of Yemen's government in February. Saudi Arabia, which views the Houthis as an Iranian proxy force, assembled a 10-country coalition this week to conduct airstrikes against the rebels. As part of its military campaign, Saudi Arabia imposed a no-fly zone over Yemen, shutting down airports and major seaports.

Yemeni-Americans who spoke to Al Jazeera say they are disappointed that the U.S. government has offered no assistance in evacuating them from the country.

The State Department said it was aware of the reports that a U.S. citizen was killed in Yemen and that it was working to verify the information. It added that the safety and protection of U.S. citizens abroad are among their top priorities. 

To date, six countries have evacuated their citizens. Russia on Wednesday sent two planes to evacuate hundreds of its citizens from Sanaa. 

That same day, the U.S. issued a statement saying, “There are no plans for a U.S. government-sponsored evacuation of U.S. citizens at this time.” While offering no departure assistance, the State Department did offer to relay urgent messages to loved ones.

Alazzani characterized the U.S.’s action as “shocking” indifference. “[He] tried his hardest to escape. Do they just not consider Yemeni-Americans to be real Americans? If they were Caucasian, would they have acted already?”

News of Labani's death comes as Yemeni-American community leaders launched a drive to raise awareness of Yemeni-Americans who are trapped in Yemen.

“The U.S. has effectively abandoned them,” said Zahra Billoo, executive director of the Bay Area office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). “It doesn't make sense to us, as citizens and tax payers, to hear that it's unsafe or impossible to evacuate nationals when much smaller countries who are not involved with the coalition violence have been able to get their citizens out.”

Billoo said that her organization knows of at least half a dozen families from the Bay Area who are stuck in Yemen.

It doesn't matter what country you're located in. The U.S. has a duty to protect their citizens equally.

Abed A. Ayoub

Legal director, ADC

CAIR, along with the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) and Asian-Americans Advancing Justice (AAAJ), two other California-based civil liberties organizations, launched an online initiative called stuckinyemen.com to gather data on individuals stranded in Yemen.

The information potentially could be used in a lawsuit, according to Abed A. Ayoub, legal director of ADC.

Ayoub said his organization has been in contact with the State Department over getting help for Americans in Yemen but had not made any progress.

“There was no resolution," he said. "It doesn't show any initiate on their part to help their citizens out of harm's way. So we so decided to launch our own initiative this morning, and gather information about who's stuck, with the aim of looking into possible legal action.”

The ADC filed a similar lawsuit in 2006 on behalf of Lebanese-Americans stranded in Lebanon during its brief war with Israel. The suit accused the secretaries of state and defense of a "failure to fulfill their constitutional and professional obligations and protect U.S. citizens in a crisis or time of war."

The U.S. eventually did evacuate its citizens, shortly before a ceasefire was declared, rendering the lawsuit moot, Ayoub said. 

The State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs held a phone conference Thursday morning to address the concerns of Yemeni-Americans. Nasrina Bargzie, an attorney at Asian Americans Advancing Justice, who was on the call, said that many of those who participated left disappointed with the outcome. “There appeared to be no resolution for Yemeni-Americans who are just being told to stay there," Bargzie said.

Underscoring the dangers faced by stranded Americans, international organizations expressed alarm this week at the rising number of civilian deaths and an impending humanitarian crisis. 

With wires services

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