The United States has taken a step toward greater involvement in the Yemen war by agreeing to perform aerial refueling of Saudi and allied bombers, though the Pentagon said Monday its tankers won’t provide the help directly over the embattled Middle East country.
The U.S. military has been providing intelligence and logistics support since the March 26 start of the Saudi-led air campaign against Houthi rebels, who the United States and Saudi Arabia say are backed by Iran.
“Aerial refueling has been approved but has not yet been conducted,” Army Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters there. “It’s been authorized, assets are in place. The Saudis have not requested it. Any refueling will not take place over Yemen. Any refueling will take place over Saudi Arabia or other places.”
Warren disclosed that several days after predominately Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia and Arab allies in the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council began bombing Shia Houthi strongholds in Yemen, U.S. military forces came to the aid of a Saudi F-15 tactical fighter plane that “had mechanical difficulties.” He declined to say where the F-15 encountered problems, beyond noting that it was not “in the (Persian) Gulf.”
Warren said “a handful of (U.S.) personnel” are working in “a joint sort of fusion center” run by the Gulf Cooperation Council, which is led by Saudi Arabia and also includes the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and Bahrain.
“We’re not providing targeting intelligence (for airstrikes), but we’re providing more broadly situational intelligence,” Warren said.
Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi fled the capital of Sanaa last month and took refuge in the port city of Aden, only to escape to Saudi Arabia on March 26 as Houthi rebels attacked Aden. Almost 200 people have died in Aden, Yemen’s commercial hub, in ground fighting and airstrikes.
India on Monday evacuated 574 of its citizens from Sanaa on Air India jetliners, raising to more than 2,500 people New Delhi has removed from the conflict.
Saudi Arabia closed airports and shut down Yemen airspace when it began its bombing campaign, so India and other countries were presumed to have received Saudi permission to airlift their citizens.
India, a major Asian power separated from Yemen by the Arabian Sea, has been besieged by requests for help from other nations.
“Twenty-three countries have requested India to evacuate their citizens from Yemen,” India Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj tweeted Monday.
Russia and the International Committee of the Red Cross on Saturday appealed to Saudi Arabia stop the bombardments temporarily to enable evacuations of foreigners from Yemen and the delivery of humanitarian aid into the war-torn country of 24 million people.
Russia evacuated 300 of its nationals from Yemen last week, and Canada removed an undisclosed number of people.
Beijing said Thursday that a Chinese naval frigate had evacuated 225 people from 10 countries from Aden. It identified the countries as Canada, Britain, Ireland, Germany, Italy, Poland, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Singapore and Yemen.
The U.S. State Department on Friday issued a travel warning, urging Americans not to go to Yemen and advising those already there “to depart when you are safely able to do so.”
The State Department added: "U.S. citizens who choose to seek foreign government assistance in leaving Yemen should only do so if they can safely make their way to the point of embarkation and have received confirmation that there is space available. Even if assured there is space aboard transportation, U.S. citizens should be aware that there is no guarantee that they will be permitted to board the transport, or may have to wait an indefinite period until they can do so."
Warren said Monday that the United States has “assets in place” to evacuate Americans but has not begun to do so.
Marie Harf, a State Department spokeswoman, said there were “no plans for U.S. assets to be used” for evacuations. She urged Americans to sign up on the agency’s website for when evacuations might begin.
The State Department sent out alerts Sunday and Monday telling the estimated 300 Americans in Yemen of other countries’ ships that were taking on foreigners.
The U.S. Embassy in Sanaa shut down in February, and its staff left Yemen.
Several Arab-American groups have launched a website, StuckinYemen.com, to provide information for stranded Americans. The groups said the website was aimed mainly at Yemeni-Americans, but other U.S. citizens were welcome to use it.
Among the advocacy groups hosting the website are the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.
“We hearing from people that are stuck all over the country,” Zahra Billoo, executive director of the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations told National Public Radio.
Billoo said he didn’t understand why the United States is not evacuating its citizens when other countries are trying to remove their nationals.
Harf said the security situation in Yemen was too precarious to launch evacuations.
"Given the situation in Yemen, it's quite dangerous and unpredictable,” she told reporters last week. “Doing something like sending in military assets, even for an evacuation, could put U.S. citizen lives at greater risk."
The United States last evacuated citizens from a country riven by war in 2011, when it removed Americans from Egypt during deadly protests against then-President Hosni Mubarak.