WASHINGTON/CAIRO—The United States will stop refueling aircraft from the Saudi-led coalition that is fighting Iran-allied Houthi rebels in Yemen, according to an announcement by the coalition on Nov. 10.
“Recently, the Kingdom and the Coalition increased its capability to independently conduct inflight refueling in Yemen. As a result, in consultation with the United States, the Coalition has requested the cessation of inflight refueling support for its operations in Yemen,” the Saudi statement said.
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said the U.S. government was consulted on the decision, and that Washington supported the move while continuing to work with the alliance to minimize civilian casualties and expand humanitarian efforts.
“The U.S. and the Coalition are planning to collaborate on building up legitimate Yemeni forces to defend the Yemeni people, secure their country’s borders, and contribute to counter Al Qaeda and ISIS efforts in Yemen and the region,” he said in a statement.
A halt to refueling could have little practical effect on the conflict, which is seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Only a fifth of coalition aircraft require in-air refueling from the United States, U.S. officials said.
In late October, the United States and Britain called for a ceasefire in Yemen to support U.N.-led efforts to end the nearly four-year-long war that has killed more than 10,000 people and triggered the world’s most urgent humanitarian crisis.
Battle in Hodeidah
The Sunni Muslim alliance led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates has recently stepped up military operations against the Iranian-aligned Houthi movement, including in the main port city of Hodeidah, which is a lifeline for millions of Yemenis.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, called for an immediate end to the military escalation in Yemen.
“The Saudi-led Coalition and pro-Hadi forces, the Houthi forces—and those who supply arms or other support to the parties to the conflict—all have the power or the influence to stop the starvation and killing of civilians, to give some reprieve to the people of Yemen,” Bachelet said in a statement on Nov. 10.
The statement also said there is concern over 900 detainees in the central prison in Hodeidah and six pre-trial detention facilities after it was hit on Nov. 5 by two mortar shells, injuring five and cutting off power and water to the prison.
Hodeidah has become a key battleground in the war in which the coalition intervened in 2015 to restore the internationally recognized government that was ousted by the Houthis.
U.N. bodies warn that an all-out attack on the Red Sea port, an entry point for 80 percent of Yemen’s food imports and aid relief, could trigger a famine in the impoverished country.
The World Food Programme said on Nov. 8 that it planned to double food assistance for Yemen, aiming to reach up to 14 million people “to avert mass starvation.”
Air strikes by the coalition, which relies on Western arms and intelligence, have often hit schools, hospitals, and markets, killing thousands of Yemeni civilians.
U.N. special envoy Martin Griffiths hopes to convene Yemen’s warring parties for peace talks by the end of the year.
The coalition expressed hope in its statement that his efforts would lead to a negotiated settlement, including an end to Houthi missile attacks that have targeted Saudi cities and vessels off the port of Hodeidah.
Mattis said all parties support Griffiths’ efforts.
The last round of peace talks in Geneva in September collapsed when the Houthis failed to show up, saying their delegation had been prevented from traveling. The Yemeni government blamed the group for trying to sabotage the talks.
By Phil Stewart and Nayera Abdallah Mahmoud
Additional reporting by Makini Brice and Tom Perry