Mattis: U.S. still backs Saudi coalition

WASHINGTON (AP) – Defending U.S. support for the Arab-led coalition fighting in Yemen, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Tuesday that U.S. efforts to minimize civilian casualties are paying off, even as a new U.N. report said the governments of Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates may have committed war crimes.

“For the last several years we have been working with the Saudis and the Emiratis, doing what we can to reduce any chance of innocent people being injured or killed,” Mattis told a Pentagon news conference.

Mattis said the U.S. supports Saudi Arabia’s right to defend its territory against rocket attacks by Houthi rebels in Yemen. He said the Saudi military staffs have made good use of U.S. intelligence and advice on how to avoid civilian casualties.

“At no time have we felt rebuffed or ignored when we bring concerns to them,” he added. “The training that we have given them we know has paid off.” He cited instances of Saudi pilots deciding during a combat mission to withhold fire to avoid potential civilian casualties, even when they have authority to fire.

The U.S. military is not directly involved in the fighting with the Houthis.

An airstrike by the Saudi-led coalition earlier this month hit a bus in a busy market in northern Yemen, killing dozens, including children. The U.S. is pressing the Saudi government to complete an investigation of what went wrong.

“We recognize every mistake like this is tragic in every way, but we have not seen any callous disregard by the people we’re working with,” Mattis said. “So we will continue to work with them.”

Mattis says the U.S. has been working with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to improve airstrike targeting. He said the U.S. is constantly reviewing its support for the coalition, but he made no suggestion that the Trump administration is considering ending its support.

Three experts working for the U.N.’s Human Rights Council said in a report that the governments of Yemen, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia may have been responsible for war crimes during 3½ years of fighting against rebels there.