Saudi coalition in Yemen ends US fueling under pressure

Saudi coalition in Yemen ends US fueling under pressure

Jon Gambrell, The Associated Press

Published Saturday, November 10, 2018 12:20 PM EST

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – Saudi Arabia-led coalition fighting in Yemen announced early Saturday that it had "stopped" the US Air Force for its fighter jets.

The US decision to withdraw is also due to the indignation of the US legislators of both parties over the assassination of the Washington Post columnist, Jamal Khashoggi, on October 2 at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

The Saudi confirmation and later US comments seemed to indicate that the kingdom was behind the decision. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who launched the Yemeni War as Secretary of Defense of the Kingdom in March 2015, has been subject to widespread international criticism over the war and members of his entourage allegedly participated in Khashoggi's assassination.

"We support the decision of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, after consultations with the US government, to use the coalition's own military capabilities to carry out tank refueling operations in Yemen," US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said in a statement. "The US will continue to work with the coalition and Yemen to reduce the number of civilian casualties and expand urgent humanitarian efforts across the country."

It was not immediately clear what impact the withdrawal of the US would have from refueling. US authorities said earlier that the Saudi forces have now handled about 80 percent of their refueling operations. This allows aircraft to fly longer missions over possible targets and reduce the pressure for fast attacks.

Despite this refueling support, Saudi Arabia has been exposed to widespread international criticism over its air strike campaign in the coalition war in Yemen, targeting the Shiite rebels known as Houthis, who hold the capital, Sanaa.

Strikes in Saudi Arabia have hit public markets, hospitals and other non-military targets and killed many civilians. Such an air raid, which took place in Saudi Arabia in the Yemeni province of Saada in August, struck a bus and killed dozens of people, including schoolchildren who wore backpacks. Human rights groups have found fragments of American ammunition after several of these strikes.

Representatives of the US said on condition of anonymity on Friday to discuss the decision prior to their announcement, saying the end of refueling would not stop US training and military support. The Post first reported on the Trump government's desire to end its refueling.

The Saudi statement, released on Saturday in the state-run Saudi Press Agency, has not acknowledged the discussions and pressure of the Trump government for its withdrawal.

"Recently, the Kingdom and the Coalition have improved their ability to independently perform night employment in Yemen," the statement says. "As a result, the coalition, in consultation with the United States, has requested the cessation of aircraft refueling support during the flight in Yemen."

It also hoped that United Nations-sponsored talks "in a third country" would help end the war. US Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths said he is consulting the warring parties of Yemen to finalize details for a new round of peace talks. Griffith's efforts to revive the peace talks in September, however, failed after the Houthis were absent, arguing that they had no guarantees of their safe return.

News of the stoppage of US refueling operations was quickly dismissed by the Houthis as a media force in response to international pressure on Washington and Riyadh over the Yemen war.

"We have a clear demand and this is a total stop Saudi Arabian air strikes," said a Houthi official who spoke on Saturday on condition of anonymity with The Associated Press because he was not authorized to inform the media. "If the air strikes are stopped, we can move on to political negotiations."

Meanwhile, fierce fighting continued near the port city of Hodeida on the Red Sea, with increased air strikes by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition, which struck Houthi's positions. On Saturday, the explosions shook the city east and north of Hodeida as the coalition forces attempted to bring the city of al-Saleh to the northeast of the city, where they encountered strong resistance.

The Houthis claim that their troops assert themselves and deny the coalition-led ground forces the loss of territory.

The withdrawal from refueling comes in the wake of new US efforts to put an end to a conflict called the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world, was on the brink of famine and faced a conflict with outbreaks of disease that killed at least 10,000 people.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates see war as a means to limit Iranian influence on the Arabian Peninsula. While Iran directly dispute rebel armament, the United Nations and the Western powers have documented that Tehran is transferring everything from the Kalashnikov assault rifles to the Houthis, to the ballistic missile technology that routinely invades cities into the Saudi Arabian Capital Riyadh will be attacked. The Houthis have also detained opponents and indiscriminately landmines.

Both Mattis and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have been pressing for a ceasefire in recent days. Saudi Arabia's armed forces and their allies on the ground have re-advanced Houthi's port city of Hodeida on the Red Sea, which brings most of the food and supplies to Yemen. International aid organizations warn of an interruption of the port.

"Hodeida runs the risk of being wiped out," said Mohamed Abdi of the Norwegian Refugee Council. "We now warn that the conflicting parties and their international supporters, if they allow it, are responsible for the death, injury and suffering of millions of people."

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