The U.S. is stopping aerial refueling of warplanes bombing Yemen, dialing back support for a Saudi-led military coalition as criticism of the kingdom grows in Washington over the conflict’s civilian impact.
Saudi Arabia and the U.S. Defense Department said the Arab coalition requested the change because it had developed its own aerial refueling capabilities and no longer needed American support in that capacity. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said the U.S., which also provides limited intelligence assistance to the coalition, would continue working with the alliance to minimize civilian casualties and expand humanitarian aid efforts.
The move comes at a fraught juncture in Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Washington. Democrats in Congress, many of whom have been critical of the Saudi-led campaign, won a House of Representatives majority this month and could push for more reductions in U.S. help when they take power next year. The kingdom is also under renewed scrutiny over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi last month at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
It wasn’t clear whether the end of U.S. refueling missions would have an immediate impact on the coalition. Aerial refueling allows jets to strike targets at a greater distance and carry heavier payloads.
Efforts to end Yemen’s more than three-year war have intensified, with United Nations envoy Martin Griffiths working to convene talks this month following calls for diplomacy from Mr. Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
The peace push has encountered obstacles in recent days, however, as coalition-backed Yemeni forces make a renewed assault on Hodeidah, a Red Sea port city through which most of Yemen’s humanitarian aid enters.
A U.N. spokesman said Thursday that Mr. Griffiths aimed to start talks by the end of the year instead of this month, although a person familiar with the situation said the goal was still to start them on Nov. 29.
The Yemen conflict pits the Saudi-led coalition and the internationally recognized Yemeni government against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in one of the region’s bloodiest proxy battles. The Houthis control the capital, San’a, and have held out there for more than three years despite thousands of airstrikes and a ground assault by Yemeni forces allied with the coalition.
Tens of thousands of people are estimated to have died in the conflict, many of them as a result of coalition airstrikes. The war has touched off the world’s worst humanitarian disaster, spreading disease, inhibiting aid and pushing eight million people to the brink of famine.
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