U.S. boosts assistance to Saudis fighting rebels in Yemen

Updated 5:48 PM EDT, Wed April 8, 2015
(CNN) —  

The United States is stepping up assistance to a Saudi-led coalition trying to drive out Iranian-backed rebels that have taken over the U.S.-supported government of Yemen.

U.S. tankers have begun to help refuel Saudi Arabian and United Arab Emirate fighter jets bombing the Houthi rebels, the Pentagon said Wednesday. The U.S. has also expedited munitions deliveries and set out circumstances in which it would share intelligence with the Saudi military.

The moves come as intensified Saudi attacks have hit several civilian targets but have not seemed to significantly loosen the hold of the rebel group. The U.S. has shied away from direct military involvement but now seems to be providing assistance just short of that.

READ: The war in Yemen is getting worse – and a civilian catastrophe is looming

U.S. officials said the new provisions should not be seen as increasing the scope of the U.S. role in the mission,however, as the Pentagon has been fielding requests from the coalition since the operation began. As the campaign has advanced and more targets identified, and more military assets used, the U.S. has needed to increase the tempo of assistance, officials said. The Obama administration continues to maintain that U.S. ground forces won’t be deployed.

The Pentagon declined to specify exactly how many planes were re-fueled Wednesday but indicated the operation would be ongoing.

“We’ll put a tanker in the air once a day at a time that it is most likely to be required,” said Col. Steve Warren, specifying that the operations would take place “outside of Yemeni airspace.”

The move comes a day after Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters during a stop in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, that the U.S. role in the Saudi-led operation would continue to grow.

“We have expedited weapons deliveries, we have increased our intelligence sharing, and we have established a joint coordination planning cell in the Saudi operation center,” Blinken said.

Though those deliveries have yet to arrive and Warren would not spell out exactly what had been requested, he said such munitions typically include bombs and guidance kits.

In addition to the munitions, the United States has set out circumstances in which it will share intelligence with Saudis during their bombing missions.

While the U.S. will not give Saudis direct targeting information, two defense officials familiar with the plans told CNN the planning will allow the U.S. to potentially review targets the Saudis have initially selected and advise them if there are civilian areas nearby or other locations such as hospitals and mosques.

Yemen officials have accused the Saudi coalition of hitting schoolchildren and refugees, while separatists opposing the Houthis have expressed frustration at Saudi attacks wiping out some 20% of the armored vehicles the group recaptured from the rebels.

READ: Yemen says Saudi airstrikes hit school, injuring students

In a telephone call with Saudi Defense Minister Prince Mohammed bin Salman earlier this week, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter “emphasized the importance of limiting civilian casualties when conducting airstrikes,” the Pentagon said in a written statement following the conversation.

Officials in Washington and other capitals are keeping a close eye on the rapidly deteriorating situation in the Persian Gulf country following the departure of President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, who fled the country last month following the quick advance of Houthis on the Yemeni capital of Sanaa and the port city of Aden.

Home to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the organization many officials say is the most dangerous Al Qaeda affiliate, the country’s lawless state, the closure of the U.S. embassy and the removal of U.S. Special Forces last month have made it something of an intelligence black hole for U.S. officials.

“The terrorism threat to the West, including the United States, from AQAP is a longstanding and serious one,” Carter told reporters Wednesday during a press conference in Tokyo following a meeting with the Japanese defense minister. “That one we will keep combatting. We obviously will change the way we do that in accordance with the circumstances there.”

CNN’s Barbara Starr contributed to this report.