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