Saudi coali­tion in Ye­men, un­der pressure, ends U.S. re­fu­el­ing

Miami Herald (Sunday) - - World | Deaths - BY JON GAMBRELL As­so­ci­ated Press

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES

The Saudi-led coali­tion fight­ing in Ye­men said early Satur­day it had “re­quested ces­sa­tion of in­flight re­fu­el­ing” by the U.S. for its fighter jets af­ter Amer­i­can of­fi­cials said they would stop the op­er­a­tions amid grow­ing anger over civil­ian ca­su­al­ties from the king­dom’s airstrikes.

The de­ci­sion by the U.S. to pull out also comes amid out­rage by U.S. law­mak­ers from both po­lit­i­cal par­ties over the Oct. 2 killing of Wash­ing­ton Post colum­nist Ja­mal Khashoggi at the Saudi Con­sulate in Is­tan­bul.

The Saudi ac­knowl­edge­ment, and later U.S. com­ments, ap­peared aimed at sug­gest­ing the king­dom was be­hind the de­ci­sion. Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man, who launched the Ye­men war as the king­dom’s de­fense min­is­ter in March 2015, faces wide­spread in­ter­na­tional crit­i­cism for the war and af­ter mem­bers of his en­tourage al­legedly took part in Khashoggi’s slay­ing.

“We sup­port the de­ci­sion by the King­dom of Saudi Ara­bia, af­ter con­sul­ta­tions with the U.S. govern­ment, to use the coali­tion’s own mil­i­tary ca­pa­bil­i­ties to con­duct in­flight re­fu­el­ing in sup­port of its op­er­a­tions in Ye­men,” U.S. De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis said in a state­ment. “The U.S. will also con­tinue work­ing with the coali­tion and Ye­men to min­i­mize civil­ian ca­su­al­ties and ex­pand ur­gent hu­man­i­tar­ian ef­forts through­out the coun­try.”

It wasn’t im­me­di­ately clear what im­pact the U.S. with­drawal from air re­fu­el­ing op­er­a­tions would have. Amer­i­can of­fi­cials ear­lier said Saudi forces now han­dled some 80 per­cent of their re­fu­el­ing op­er­a­tions, which cru­cially al­low air­craft to fly longer sor­ties over pos­si­ble tar­gets and can ease the pressure for quick strikes.

Yet even with that re­fu­el­ing sup­port, Saudi Ara­bia has faced wide­spread in­ter­na­tional crit­i­cism over its cam­paign of airstrikes in the coali­tion’s war in Ye­men, tar­get­ing Shi­ite rebels known as Houthis who hold the cap­i­tal, Sanaa.

Saudi strikes have hit pub­lic mar­kets, hos­pi­tals and other non­mil­i­tary tar­gets, killing scores of civil­ians. One such Saudi-led airstrike in Au­gust in Ye­men’s Saada province hit a bus and killed dozens of peo­ple, in­clud­ing school­child­ren wear­ing back­packs. Hu­man rights groups have found frag­ments of Amer­i­can-made mu­ni­tions af­ter sev­eral of th­ese strikes.

U.S. of­fi­cials, speak­ing on con­di­tion of anonymity Fri­day to dis­cuss the de­ci­sion be­fore its an­nounce­ment, said the end to re­fu­el­ing wouldn’t stop Amer­i­can train­ing and mil­i­tary as­sis­tance. The Post first re­ported the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s de­sire to end the re­fu­el­ing.

The Saudi state­ment, car­ried early Satur­day on the state-run Saudi Press Agency, did not ac­knowl­edge the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s dis­cus­sions and pressure for its with­drawal.

News of the halt to U.S. re­fu­el­ing op­er­a­tions was swiftly dis­missed by the Houthis as a me­dia ploy that came in re­sponse to in­ter­na­tional pressure on Wash­ing­ton and Riyadh over the Ye­men war.

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