Pentagon withdraws assets from Riyadh amid mounting death toll in Saudi-led Yemen war

Dust rises from a military base after it was hit by Saudi-led air strikes in Yemen's capital Sanaa, September 10, 2015. © Khaled Abdullah
The US forces assisting the Saudi-led coalition in coordinating air strikes in Yemen have largely withdrawn from Riyadh in an apparent move to distance themselves from the mounting civilian death toll in the 17-month long conflict, Reuters has learned.

In addition to withdrawing air support personnel, Lieutenant Ian McConnaughey, a US Navy spokesman in Bahrain told Reuters that the Pentagon also “sharply reduced” its “Joint Combined Planning Cell” (JCPC) staff to under five people.

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The JCPC, which was established in March last year when the Saudi-initiated its air campaign, at its peak devoted some 45 members to coordinate US military and intelligence support with Riyadh.

The withdrawal which took place in June is an attempt by Washington to distance itself from the responsibility of the rising death toll in Yemen, which now stands at over 6,500 people, mostly civilians. While both warring parties are to blame for the death toll, the Saudi-led coalition has been repeatedly accused of conducting “indiscriminate bombings.”

“At no point did US military personnel provide direct or implicit approval of target selection or prosecution,” Pentagon spokesman Adam Stump said in a statement after Reuters disclosed the withdrawal.

As the Pentagon admitted of largely wrapping up its effort to advise the Saudi-led coalition on steps to prevent civilian casualties, the Stump did acknowledge the growing US concern over the death count.

“Even as we assist the Saudis regarding their territorial integrity, it does not mean that we will refrain from expressing our concern about the war in Yemen and how it has been waged.”

The Saudi-led coalition did not comment on withdrawal but said that their relationship with the US continues to bear a “strategic” character.

“The relationship between the kingdom and the US is a strategic one. If true, this move reflects something at a tactical level,” spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition, Brigadier General Ahmed al-Asseri told Reuters. “The US may move its assets, but that doesn’t have any impact on the bilateral relationship between the countries.”

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An anonymous US official meanwhile told the news outlet that US will still provide limited support and intelligence sharing for the coalition, as the Saudi-led forces continue to rely on US military for an average of two refueling sorties a day.