U.S. envoy to Yemen demands Houthis free detained international staff

DUBAI (Reuters) - The United States' ambassador to Yemen on Thursday called on Yemen's Houthi group to immediately release the detained staff of international organisations including employees of the U.S. embassy in Sanaa.

The Iran-aligned Houthis detained 11 United Nations personnel in Yemen last week, according to U.N. spokesperson Stephane Dujarric.

On Thursday, the U.S. ambassador condemned the detentions and called them "shocking".

"The Houthis owe all of these Yemenis thanks, not false accusations and imprisonment. The people of Yemen deserve better than fanciful Houthi lies meant to bolster their abusive and autocratic rule," ambassador Steven Fagin said in a statement.

The staff members - all Yemenis - were swept up by armed Houthi intelligence officials in a series of raids that also resulted in the detention of three employees of the U.S.-funded pro-democracy group National Democratic Institute (NDI) and three employees of a local human rights group.

The Houthis have held around 20 Yemeni employees of the U.S. embassy in Sanaa for the past three years. The embassy suspended operations after Yemen's civil war erupted in 2014 and Houthis seized control of the capital.

The U.S. mission to Yemen is currently located in the Saudi Arabian capital Riyadh.

Yemen's Houthis said on Monday they had targeted an alleged "American-Israeli spy cell" that included former staff of the U.S. embassy in Yemen, according to a television statement from Abdel Hakim Al Khaiwani, the Houthis' intelligence chief.

"The American-Israeli spy cell carried out espionage and sabotage activities in official and unofficial institutions for decades in favour of the enemy," he said.

The Houthis, who are aligned with Iran, have attacked shipping in the Red Sea in what they say are acts of solidarity with Palestinians amid the Gaza war, drawing airstrikes from the United States and Britain.

(Reporting by Mohammed Ghobari; Writing by Andrew Mills; Editing by Ros Russell)