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MacDill crews, like others from U.S., stop refueling Saudi-led bombing in Yemen

KC-135 Stratotanker aerial refueling jets await their next flights at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. [HOWARD ALTMAN | Times]
Published Nov. 15, 2018

TAMPA — Air Force refueling crews, including those from MacDill Air Force Base, will no longer participate in a Saudi-led airstrike campaign in Yemen that has drawn international condemnation for contributing to a humanitarian crisis.

MacDill is home to 24 KC-135 Stratotanker jets that provide in-flight refueling to U.S. and allied aircraft throughout the Middle East and Southwest Asia, an area that includes Yemen. Neither officials from MacDill nor U.S. Central Command, the MacDill-based headquarters overseeing U.S. military efforts in the region, provided information on how often local crews aided the Saudi-led coalition.

The coalition has been conducting airstrikes in Yemen since March 2015. In addition to refueling, the U.S. has provided intelligence analysis for the coalition.

On Nov. 9, Defense Secretary James Mattis announced the end of the U.S. refueling efforts.

"We support the decision by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, after consultations with the U.S. government, to use the coalition's own military capabilities to conduct inflight refueling in support of its operations in Yemen," Mattis said. "We are all focused on supporting resolution of the conflict, led by UN Special Envoy, Martin Griffiths."

More than 6,600 civilians have been killed and more than 10,000 wounded since the beginning of the Saudi campaign in Yemen, according to a recent U.N. report, which suggests that the campaign may be violating the rules of war and that the casualties are likely higher.

The report, conducted by The Group of Regional and International Eminent Experts on Yemen. "strongly suggests that parties to the armed conflict have perpetrated, and continue to perpetrate, violations and crimes under international law," according to a U.N. statement released in August.

A coalition of Sunni nations including the United Arab Emirates and others have been fighting to support Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, ousted from the capital Sanaa by the Iran-aligned Houthis in 2015. But during that campaign, Saudi-led airstrikes on residential areas, markets, funerals, weddings and other concentrations of civilians have sparked global outrage and increased pressure on the Pentagon to reduce and even curtail its support for the Saudi-led campaign.

Crews and aircraft from the 6th Air Mobility Wing and the 927th Air Refueling Wing, both based at MacDill, are deployed to the Al Udeid Airbase in Qatar to take part in missions in the CentCom region. They are intermingled with other wings from around the Air Force, so tracking how often MacDill crews have taken part in the Saudi effort is difficult. In addition, the United States is conducting a separate counterterrorism campaign against al-Qaida and an element of the Islamic State in Yemen.

The pace of operations for MacDill crews won't change "due to their critical role in enabling the spectrum of operations across the globe," said Capt. Samantha Morrison, a wing spokeswoman.

Army Maj. Josh Jacques, a CentCom spokesman, told the Tampa Bay Times in September that crews from MacDill had flown 748 refueling missions in the CentCom region in 2018 with 29 local aircrews deploying to the region by the end of this year.

Contact Howard Altman at haltman@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman

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