By Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. military has withdrawn from Saudi Arabia its personnel who were coordinating with the Saudi-led air campaign in Yemen, and sharply reduced the number of staff elsewhere who were assisting in that planning, U.S. officials told Reuters.
Fewer than five U.S. service people are now assigned full-time to the "Joint Combined Planning Cell," which was established last year to coordinate U.S. support, including air-to-air refueling of coalition jets and limited intelligence-sharing, Lieutenant Ian McConnaughey, a U.S. Navy spokesman in Bahrain, told Reuters.
That is down from a peak of about 45 staff members who were dedicated to the effort full-time in Riyadh and elsewhere, he said.
The June staff withdrawal, which U.S. officials say followed a lull in air strikes in Yemen earlier this year, reduces Washington's day-to-day involvement in advising a campaign that has come under increasing scrutiny for causing civilian casualties. A Pentagon statement issued after Reuters disclosed the withdrawal acknowledged that the JCPC, as originally conceived, had been "largely shelved" and that ongoing support was limited, despite renewed fighting this summer.
"The cooperation that we've extended to Saudi Arabia since the conflict escalated again is modest and it is not a blank check," Pentagon spokesman Adam Stump said in a statement.
U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the reduced staffing was not due to the growing international outcry over civilian casualties in the 16-month civil war that has killed more than 6,500 people in Yemen, about half of them civilians.
But the Pentagon, in some of its strongest language yet, also acknowledged concerns about the conflict, which has brought Yemen close to famine and cost more than $14 billion in damage to infrastructure and economic losses.
"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," Stump said.
"In our discussions with the Saudi-led coalition, we have pressed the need to minimize civilian casualties."
A spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition, Brigadier General Ahmed al-Asseri, declined to confirm details about the positioning of U.S. military personnel, but played down such moves.
"The relationship between the kingdom and the U.S. is a strategic one. If true, this move reflects something at a tactical level," Asseri told Reuters. "The U.S. may move its assets, but that doesn't have any impact on the bilateral relationship between the countries."
Since the campaign began, the U.S. military has conducted an average of two refueling sorties every day and provided limited intelligence support to the coalition. That assistance continues, officials said.
Still, the Pentagon has long distanced itself from the Saudi-led coalition's decisions on targeting.
"At no point did U.S. military personnel provide direct or implicit approval of target selection or prosecution," Stump said.
The JCPC had also largely wrapped up an earlier effort to advise the Saudi-led coalition on steps to prevent civilian casualties, the Pentagon said.
An annual U.N. report on children and armed conflict said the Saudi-led coalition was responsible for 60 percent of child deaths and injuries in Yemen last year. Saudi Arabia has said the report is based on inaccurate information.
On Tuesday, a coalition air strike hit a hospital operated by medical aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres in Yemen, killing 19 people and prompting the group to evacuate staff from six hospitals. MSF cited a "loss of confidence in the Saudi-led coalition to prevent fatal attacks."
U.S. Representative Ted Lieu, a Democrat from California and a colonel in the Air Force Reserve, said he believed such strikes could help galvanize votes for limiting arms transfers to Saudi Arabia.
"When its repeated air strikes that have now killed children, doctors, newlyweds, patients, at some point you just have to say: Either Saudi Arabia is not listening to the United States or they just don't care," Lieu said.
(Additional reporting by Yara Bayoumy in Washington, Katie Paul in Riyadh and Michelle Nichols in New York; Editing by John Walcott, Alistair Bell and Bernard Orr)