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US halts some Saudi arms sales over Yemen deaths concerns

By ALEX HORTON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 13, 2016

SAN ANTONIO — The United States will slow and in some cases cancel sales of military weapons supporting Saudi Arabia’s campaign against Yemen over rising concerns of civilian causalities caused by U.S. munitions, a senior White House official said Tuesday.

“We continue to have concerns about the conflict in Yemen and how it has been waged, most especially the air campaign. Consequently, we have decided to not move forward with final approval on some sales of munitions,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The official also said the changes will lead to a stronger focus on Saudi Arabian border security and sharing threat analysis.

More than 10,000 people have died in the 20-month-old campaign to wrestle territory from Houthi rebels aligned with Iran. The former president, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, is supported by Saudi Arabia and other Arab states, and by extension, the United States.

Saudi airstrikes in support of loyalists have destroyed civilian targets like schools and hospitals, including an airstrike targeting a funeral in the capital of Sanaa, which killed more than 140 people in October, according to a U.N. estimate. The bombing provoked strong condemnation from The White House.

“U.S. security cooperation with Saudi Arabia is not a blank check,” National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said in a statement following the attack. He added a review of ongoing support of Saudi Arabia was triggered after the bombing and other high-profile civilian deaths.

President Barack Obama’s administration has overseen $115 billion in military hardware sales to Saudi Arabia, the most of any administration in a decades-long relationship, according to a September report from the Security Assistance Monitor, a Washington group that tracks global arm sales.

Sales have also included land and air-based munitions, fighter jets, refueling tankers and dozens of attack helicopters, with more than half of Saudi Arabia’s 325 combat ready aircraft from U.S. stocks, according to the Security Assistance Monitor report.

A Reuters report citing unnamed officials said U.S. air refueling missions would not be part of the agreement to halt operations.

Refueling sorties have been scrutinized by human rights groups as a direct support role of U.S. troops in the Yemeni civil war. U.S. refueling tankers, such as the KC-135 Stratotanker and KC-10 Extender, fly missions from Incirlik Air Base in Turkey or carriers in the Arabian Sea to refuel U.S.-made F-15 fighter jets.

U.S. tankers have flown about 1600 refueling missions to aid Saudi air campaigns since the civil war began last year, according to media reports, which is about two missions a day.

Sales of precision-guided munitions were scrutinized, the Reuters report stated, due to “systemic, endemic” problems with Saudi targeting operations, including the funeral strike. New restrictions include hundreds of millions of dollars in Raytheon-produced equipment that would turn unguided “dumb bombs” into precision bombs, according to Reuters.

Precision bombs are guided by detailed coordinates but their effectiveness rests on intelligence marking correct positions, along with ground-based air control units ensuring targets are legitimate military positions.

“We are also exploring how to refocus training for the Saudi Air Force to address these kinds of issues,” the White House official said, describing the intelligence chain used to monitor, mark and confirm legitimate military targets.The Pentagon slashed the number of U.S. troops helping Saudi Arabia coordinate its air campaign, from 45 at its height to just six, Reuters reported.

It is unclear whether halted military equipment sales to Saudi Arabia would include a scrutinized deal for the Pentagon to sell M1A2 Abrams tanks for $1.15 billion, including 20 tanks specifically identified as replenishing stocks of tanks damaged in Yemen. The sale was backed by Congress in October.

U.S.-supplied white phosphorous mortar rounds have also been used against rebels in Yemen, the Washington Post reported in September. The rounds are used to signal troops and create smoke screens for maneuvering but can kill and hurt troops and civilians with severe burns.

“As a major arms seller to Saudi Arabia, the U.S. risks being complicit in Saudi Arabia’s likely war crimes in Yemen,” Sunjeev Bery, Amnesty International’s advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa, told the Washington Post, describing the use of white phosphorous rounds.

Al-Qaida in the Arab Peninsula, based in Yemen, has been a target of U.S. airstrikes. Eight militants were killed in separate strikes in October, U.S. Central Command has reported.

Yemen was also at the center of multiple attacks on U.S. Navy vessels in October. Cruise missiles were fired at American warships from territory held by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. In response, the USS Nitze destroyed three radar sites off the Red Sea coast with Tomahawk missiles, the Pentagon said Oct. 13.

horton.alex@stripes.com
Twitter: @AlexHortonTX

People gather at the bombed site near an air force base to search for casualties in Sanaa, Yemen, on Thursday, March 26, 2015.
HANI ALI, XINHUA/ZUMA PRESS/TNS

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