US To Halt Refueling Of Coalition Aircraft In Yemen War

Airport officials look at the wreckage of a military transport aircraft destroyed by Saudi-led airstrikes, at the Sanaa International Airport, in Yemen, May 5, 2015.

WASHINGTON  (REUTERS) — The United States is halting refueling of aircraft from the Saudi-led coalition engaged in Yemen, Saudi Arabia said Saturday, a move that would end one of the most divisive aspects of U.S. assistance to the Saudi war effort.

Saudi Arabia, in a statement released by the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA), said it had decided to request an end to U.S. aerial refueling for its operations in Yemen because it could now handle it by itself.

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

The change comes at a time of international outrage over the killing of U.S.-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and after Democratic and Republican lawmakers threatened to address the refueling operations next week in Congress.

Critics of the Saudi campaign — including Democrats who won control of the House of Representatives in elections on Tuesday — have long questioned U.S. involvement in the war, which has killed more than 10,000 people, displaced more than 2 million and led to widespread famine in Yemen since it began in 2015.

"I've been calling for this for over three years," said Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif. "We shouldn't be supporting coalition war crimes, and I look forward to continuing to scrutinize the U.S.'s role in Yemen when we're in the majority next Congress."

Even as President Donald Trump's administration has condemned Khashoggi's slaying, the White House has sought to preserve its relationship with Saudi Arabia.

Any coordinated decision by Washington and Riyadh to halt refueling could be an attempt by both countries to forestall further action by Congress.

Sens. Todd Young, R-Ind., and Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., had warned the Trump administration was running out of time to act.

"If the administration does not take immediate steps ... we are prepared to take additional action when the Senate comes back into session," Young and Shaheen said.

The Pentagon, State Department and White House declined to comment.

More time for bombers

Earlier this year, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis defended U.S. military support to Saudi-led coalition forces in Yemen, when lawmakers weighed forcing the Pentagon to end Washington's involvement in the conflict.

Mattis argued that halting U.S. military support could increase civilian casualties, since U.S. refueling had given pilots more time to select their targets. He told them cutting off support could jeopardize cooperation on counterterrorism and reduce American influence with Saudi Arabia.

Mattis also argued it would embolden the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels, who have fired missiles at Saudi Arabia and targeted commercial and military vessels off Yemen's coast.

A halt to refueling could have little practical effect on the war. U.S. officials told Reuters only a fifth of Saudi-led coalition aircraft require in-air refueling from the United States.

In recent weeks, Mattis has appeared to voice a growing sense of urgency toward ending the conflict. At the end of October, Mattis joined U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in calling for a cease-fire.