U.S. to Stop Refueling Saudi Planes as Pressure Rises Over Yemen

(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. will stop refueling Saudi-coalition planes participating in the Yemen conflict, the two countries said, a move that appears aimed at putting new pressure on the kingdom to wind down a war that’s resulted in thousands of civilian deaths and an acute humanitarian crisis.

Saudi Arabia’s official SPA news agency attributed the decision, carried out in consultation with the U.S., to the coalition’s ability to “independently conduct in-flight refueling in Yemen.” U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis later said the U.S. supported the move.

U.S. to Stop Refueling Saudi Planes as Pressure Rises Over Yemen

The refueling help was perhaps the most visible marker of U.S. support for the coalition war in Yemen. U.S. lawmakers ratcheted up pressure on the administration in recent days to halt the practice as a way of curtailing U.S. involvement in what the United Nations has called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

The Washington Post first reported the decision to end the refueling. In a statement late Friday, Mattis said the U.S. was “focused on supporting resolution of the conflict, led by UN Special Envoy, Martin Griffiths.”

Bus Bombing

President Donald Trump recently criticized Saudi conduct of the aerial campaign, pointing specifically to an August school bus bombing that killed at least 40 children. In an interview with Axios that aired on HBO on Nov. 4 he said the government shouldn’t have people “who don’t know how to use the weapons shooting at buses with children. We teach them how to use the equipment.”

Mattis and Secretary of State Michael Pompeo have called on both sides to end the war, but Pompeo said last week that the Houthis rebels who control much of Yemen must take the first step by stopping missile and unmanned aerial vehicle attacks on Saudi Arabian and United Arab Emirates territory.

The U.S. is also looking for ways to punish Saudi Arabia for the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October. Last month, the U.S. revoked visas for several Saudis implicated in his killing and barred others from being able to get documents to travel to the U.S.

Arms Sales

At the same time, Trump’s administration doesn’t want to jeopardize its broader relationship with Saudi Arabia, a crucial ally in the U.S. effort to constrain Iran. The U.S. hasn’t, for example, curtailed arms sales to the country.

Citing current and former officials, the New York Times reported Friday that the Trump administration is preparing new sanctions against Saudis linked to Khashoggi’s killing.

That could head off tougher congressional action, yet would avoid directly punishing Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. There’s been discussion at senior levels of the White House about imposing the sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act, which gives the executive branch authority to punish foreign officials involved in human rights abuses.

Democrat Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Republican Senator Todd Young of Indiana called in a statement on Friday for the end of aerial refueling, and threatened additional action by the Senate if the administration didn’t act.

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