Saudi coalition halts US refuelling amid mounting Yemen war outrage

Saudi coalition halts US refuelling amid mounting Yemen war outrage
The Saudi-led coalition has 'requested cessation of inflight refuelling' by the US for its fighter jets after growing anger toward the war on Yemen.
4 min read
10 November, 2018
Yemen has descended into a humanitarian catastrophe [Getty]

The Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen said early on Saturday it had "requested cessation of inflight refuelling" by the US 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 US to pull out also comes amid outrage by US lawmakers from both political parties over the October 2 killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.

The Saudi acknowledgement, and later US 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 defence 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 US government, to use the coalition's own military capabilities to conduct inflight refuelling in support of its operations in Yemen," US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said in a statement. "The US will also continue working with the coalition and Yemen to minimise civilian casualties and expand urgent humanitarian efforts throughout the country."

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

Yet even with that refuelling support, Saudi Arabia has faced widespread international criticism over its campaign of airstrikes in the coalition's war in Yemen, targeting 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.

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

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

"Recently the kingdom and the coalition has increased its capability to independently conduct inflight refuelling in Yemen," the statement read. "As a result, in consultation with the United States, the coalition has requested cessation of inflight refuelling support for its operations in Yemen."

It also said it hoped upcoming United Nations sponsored talks "in a third country" would help end the war. UN special envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths has said he is conducting consultations with Yemen's warring parties to finalise details for a new round of peace talks. However, Griffiths' effort to revive peace talks in September fell through after the Houthis failed to attend, arguing they didn't have guarantees for their safe return.

News of the halt to US refuelling 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.

Intense fighting near the Red Sea port city of Hodeida continued over the weekend, with stepped up airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition pounding Houthi positions. On Saturday, the sound of large explosions east and north of Hodeida rocked the city as coalition forces tried to take the town of al-Saleh northeast of the city where they are meeting stiff resistance.

The Houthis maintain that their forces are holding their ground and deny losing territory to the coalition-led ground forces.

The pullout from refuelling comes amid new American efforts to force an end to a conflict described as the world's worst humanitarian crisis. Yemen, the Arab world's poorest country, has stood on the brink of famine and faced disease outbreaks in a conflict that has killed more than 10,000 people.