WASHINGTON/CAIRO - Saudi Arabia and the United States have agreed to end U.S. refueling of aircraft from the Saudi-led coalition battling Houthi insurgents in Yemen, ending a divisive aspect of U.S. support to a war that has pushed Yemen to the brink of famine.
The move, announced by the coalition on Saturday and confirmed by Washington, comes at a time when Riyadh, already under scrutiny for civilian deaths in Yemen airstrikes, is facing global furor and potential sanctions over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at its Istanbul consulate on Oct. 2.
The United States and Britain late last month called for a cease-fire in Yemen to support U.N.-led efforts to end the nearly four-year war, whicch has killed more than 10,000 people and triggered the world’s most urgent humanitarian crisis.
“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,” it said in a statement.
Saudi Arabia has a fleet of 23 planes for refueling operations, including six Airbus 330 MRTT used for Yemen, while the United Arab Emirates has six of the Airbus planes, Saudi-owned Al Arabiya al-Hadath channel reported on Saturday.
Riyadh also has nine KC-130 Hercules aircraft that can be used, it added.
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said the decision was taken in consultation with the U.S. government and that Washington supported the move while continuing to work with the alliance to minimize civilian casualties and expand humanitarian efforts.
Any coordinated decision by Washington and Riyadh could be an attempt to forestall action threatened in Congress in the coming week by Democratic and Republican lawmakers over the refueling operations.
However, a halt to refueling could have little practical effect on the conflict, 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.
The Sunni Muslim alliance led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE 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 Red Sea port has become a key battleground in the war in which the coalition intervened in 2015 to restore the internationally recognized government by ousting the Houthis from the capital Sanaa and other strategic cities.
U.N. bodies have warned that an all-out attack on Hodeidah, 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 Program said on Thursday it planned to double its food assistance program 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, including dozens of children traveling on a bus in Saada province in August.
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 the U.N.-led efforts would lead to a negotiated settlement to the war, including an end to Houthi missile attacks that have targeted the kingdom and vessels off the port of Hodeidah.
Mattis said all parties support Griffiths’ 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-Qaida and ISIS efforts in Yemen and the region,” he said in a statement.
The last round of peace talks in Geneva in September collapsed when the Houthis failed to show up. The group said its delegation had been prevented from traveling, while the coalition blamed the Houthis of trying to sabotage the talks.