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U.S. citizen killed in Yemen by mortar strike

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(CNN) — A U.S. citizen killed in a mortar strike this week in Yemen was identified by friends and family as Jamal al-Labani.

He is believed to be the first American killed in the current violence in Yemen.

Early Tuesday evening, the 45-year-old al-Labani was in Aden, Yemen, on his way back from mosque prayers when he was hit in the back by shrapnel from a mortar shell, his family said. He died minutes later.

In February, the gas station owner had traveled from his home in Hayward, California, to Yemen, with the intention of bringing his pregnant wife and 2-year-old daughter back to the U.S., according to his family. But as the airports shut down, leaving the country became nearly impossible.

“When he got (to Aden), after a few weeks he noticed things were starting to get bad and then the embassy closed,” his cousin Mohammed Alazzani told CNN.

For the last three weeks, al-Labani had told family members he was concerned about not being able to evacuate, as the situation deteriorated in the country, according to his cousin.

Two days before the incident, he said the last option was to try to cross the border into Oman and fly to Egypt, but he never made it.

“The airports got closed and things got worse and worse,” Alazzani told CNN by phone. “People were hoping things would get better, but they only got worse and worse.”

On Sunday, the Council on American-Islamic Relations told CNN it is helping his family and other Yemeni-Americans who are still trapped in the conflict.

“All of these other governments, Russia, China, Ethiopia, India … they have all been evacuating their citizens. So to say that it’s impossible for the U.S. to evacuate their citizens is difficult to grasp,” CAIR spokeswoman Zahra Billoo told CNN.

Responding to the criticism, the U.S. State Department told CNN that there are no current plans to evacuate private U.S. citizens from Yemen.

“We encourage all U.S. citizens to shelter in a secure location until they are able to depart safely. U.S. citizens wishing to depart should do so via commercial transportation options when they are available,” a spokesman for the State Department told CNN in a statement. “Additionally, some foreign governments may arrange transportation for their nationals and may be willing to offer assistance to others.”

Yemeni-American advocates think more could be done.

“There have been travel warnings to Yemen for a few years now. What’s not clear is, are they saying ‘Be cautious’ or ‘Don’t go at all’?” Billoo asked. “It still it doesn’t sit well with many of us civil rights lawyers who believe that U.S. citizenship should be the ultimate protection.”

CNN’s Devon Sayers and Carma Hassan contributed to this report.

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