United States to end refuelling of Saudi-coalition aircraft in Yemen war

James Mattis

James Mattis

The Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen is opting to refuel its aircraft independently going forward, ending a controversial collaboration with USA military assets.

Saudi Arabia and the United States have agreed to end USA refuelling of aircraft from the Saudi-led coalition battling Houthi insurgents in Yemen, halting a divisive aspect of US support to a war that has pushed Yemen to the brink of starvation.

The move comes at a time of worldwide outrage over the murder of US-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and after Democratic and Republican lawmakers threatened to take action in Congress next week over the refueling operations.

Currently, the Pentagon provides refueling capabilities for about 20 percent of coalition planes flying sorties over Yemen.

"We feel that the current situation above all else warrants a resolution that gives both the special envoy and OCHA the support they need to take a step towards ending the conflict in Yemen and the suffering of the Yemeni people", the trio said in an email to the council seen by AFP.

US Representative Ro Khanna, an advocate of barring US military support to the Saudi war on Yemen, has reportedly introduced a measure in the House to ensure the Trump administration follows through on its decision. "We support the decision by the kingdom of Saudi Arabia", he said.

Saudi Arabia has been paying the U.S. for the refueling, but there were no details on how much that cost.

A US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Washington supported the Saudi decision.

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Anti-war groups hailed the decision as a victory and called for the U.S. to go further in halting support for the campaign.

The official Saudi Press Agency (SPA) reported that Riyadh had itself demanded to stop inflight refueling services by the U.S. military for its warplanes after "consultation" with the US.

Still, a halt to refueling could by itself have little practical effect on the war.

Mattis said the United States would play a continuing role to help the Saudi-led coalition and Yemeni forces minimize civilian casualties and expand humanitarian efforts.

The coalition has come under heavy criticism for its relentless airstrikes since 2015, which United Nations experts say have caused the majority of the estimated 10,000 civilian deaths in the conflict and could constitute a war crime. It said that the coalition, which relies heavily on air power, has killed scores of civilians in recent airstrikes, and rebels are responding with mortars in residential neighborhoods that cause indiscriminate casualties.

Earlier this year, Mr Mattis had defended United States military support to Saudi-led coalition forces in Yemen, when politicians considered forcing the Pentagon to end Washington's involvement. In the last month, the UAE has mounted an all-out offensive to capture the critical Yemeni port of Hodeida.

The conflict in Yemen, the Arab world's poorest country, began with the 2014 takeover of the capital, Sanaa, by the Houthis who toppled the internationally recognized government. The death toll has not been updated in years, however, and is likely to be far higher.

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