US halts refueling support as Saudi-backed forces push Yemen offensive
The Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen said early Saturday it had "requested cessation of inflight refueling" by the U.S. 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 U.S. to pull out also comes amid outrage by U.S. lawmakers from both political parties over the Oct. 2 killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.
The Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen halted a controversial refueling arrangement with the US on Saturday, as Riyadh-backed troops took the main hospital in the strategic port city of Hodeida.
The suspension of US assistance to re-fuel coalition aircraft comes as Washington's backing of the war effort faces increased scrutiny following international outrage over journalist Jamal Khashoggi's murder last month in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
US Democrats, buoyed by a string of midterm election victories, have sought to curtail Washington's military support to Saudi Arabia and demanded greater oversight of a conflict dubbed by the UN as the world's worst humanitarian crisis.
But in an apparent face-saving move, Saudi Arabia sought to project the decision to end in-flight refuelling as its own, not Washington's.
"Recently the kingdom and the coalition has increased its capability to independently conduct inflight refueling in Yemen," the official Saudi Press Agency said early Saturday.
"As a result, in consultation with the United States, the coalition has requested cessation of inflight refueling support for its operations in Yemen."
Pentagon chief Jim Mattis said he supported Saudi Arabia's "decision".
The grinding Saudi-led war in Yemen has caused growing international unease, after a string of high-profile coalition strikes that have killed scores of civilians, many of them children.
Saturday's announcement comes as forces loyal to the Saudi and Emirati-backed government push a renewed offensive to capture the rebel-held port of Hodeida, the point of entry for nearly all UN-supervised aid, despite warnings of a humanitarian catastrophe.
- 'STREET FIGHTING' -
Just hours after the announcement, Yemeni officials said pro-government forces had captured the May 22 Hospital, the main medical facility in the city of some 600,000 people.
Amnesty International had accused the Huthis of "deliberate militarisation" of the facility after they posted snipers on its roof.
Backed by Saudi-led air raids, loyalist troops for the first time entered residential neighbourhoods of Hodeida on Thursday, using bulldozers to remove concrete road blocks installed by the rebels.
The Huthi Shiite rebels have launched fierce barrages of mortar fire as they battled to slow an advance by pro-government forces, with their leader vowing not to surrender despite being heavily outnumbered
Fierce battles raged on Saturday in eastern sectors of Hodeida as loyalist forces backed by air strikes and Apache helicopters sought to push deeper into the city.
"The battles here are turning into street fighting," one loyalist official said, adding that rebels are using extensive sniper fire and mortar rounds that are "falling like rain".
He added that their advance was being impeded by "a lot of mines" beneath roads and in trenches.
Reflecting the dire humanitarian situation, updated UN figures showed some 445,000 people have been forced to flee Hodeida province since June.
Nearly 80 percent of Yemen's commercial imports and practically all UN-supervised humanitarian aid pass through Hodeida's docks.
- 'EMPTY TALK' -
The Pentagon provided refueling capabilities for about 20 percent of coalition planes flying sorties over Yemen.
Saudi-controlled media suggested the coalition had the capacity to make up the shortfall.
Saudi-owned Al Arabiya al-Hadath television reported that the kingdom has 23 planes for refuelling operations devoted to Yemen operations, including six Airbus 330 Multi Role Tanker transport aircraft, while the UAE has six.
But analysts said the US move would limit the coalition's ability to conduct bombing missions.
"This is a significant decision by the US as this was the most important operational support they provided to the coalition making the US air force a party to the conflict," said Andreas Krieg, a professor at the School of Security Studies at King's College in London.
"The coalition has their own refuelling capability in theory, but air-to-air refuelling is a demanding exercise that neither Saudi Arabia nor the UAE can do as efficiently."
The intensifed battle for Hodeida comes despite the Pentagon chief's surprise call last month for a ceasefire in Yemen as he urged warring parties to enter negotiations within the next 30 days.
The United Nations has since pushed that deadline back to the end of the year.
In an op-ed published by The Washington Post on Friday, the head of the rebels' Supreme Revolutionary Committee, Mohammed Ali al-Huthi, said the escalating offensive in Hodeida showed that Mattis's ceasefire call was "nothing but empty talk".
"The recent statements are trying to mislead the world... The United States has the clout to bring an end to the conflict -- but it has decided to protect a corrupt ally," Huthi wrote.
The article infuriated Yemeni government officials, who accused the Post of providing a platform to a "war criminal".