SANAA, Yemen – The US decision to stop supplying warplanes from a Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen was welcomed by Yemeni rebel officials, human rights activists and humanitarian workers on Saturday.
He also sent a strong signal, they said, about Washington's growing discomfort with air strikes by its closest Middle Eastern allies who killed thousands of civilians in Yemen.
But those interviewed said it was very unlikely that the decision would return to the coalition – unless more concrete action was taken. Nor will it change alone the trajectory of the war in Yemen, they said, or its growing humanitarian crisis, which now includes over 14 million people on the edge of famine – more than half of the Yemen population.
The United States, Britain and other Western powers continue to support the coalition with intelligence, logistical support and billions of dollars in armaments, many of which are deployed in Yemen, the poorest nation in the Middle East.
Saudi Arabia, on Friday night, claimed to have asked the Pentagon to stop refueling its planes because its forces were able to carry out the task themselves.
"The US decision to stop supplying coalition aircraft is significant because it implies that the US is trying to distance itself from the devastating impact on civilians of poorly targeted air strikes," said Elisabeth Kendall, a scholar of Yemen at the University of Oxford. "But it's not a military turning point".
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other Sunni Muslim countries in the coalition are trying to unseat the Houthi Shiite rebel forces, which the US and its allies claim are backed by Iran. Tehran denies this.
The goal of the Saudi-led war is to restore Yemen's internationally recognized government, driven out of the Yemeni capital Sanaa in 2015, and to prevent Iran from gaining ground in the Arabian peninsula.
On Saturday, Houthi's deputy information minister, Fahmi Alyusufi, described the US decision as "a guarantee for those who oppose US involvement in aggression" by the Saudi-led coalition.
Another Houthi political official has rejected the refueling of fuel supply as incremental as the United States continues to provide logistical and intelligence support, as well as sending US military trainers to Saudi Arabia to contribute to the war effort.
The US move "will have an effect on the duration of their aircraft in the air, but it will not cripple the ability of aggression to intensify the conflict," said official Mohammed Albukhaiti. "The siege of Yemen is an American and Western siege because such a siege goes beyond the capabilities of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates."
The supply of coalition aircraft to the United States has long been controversial due to the large number of civilians killed following the coalition air strikes. The UN estimates that at least 10,000 have died while other reputable organizations have made more than 50,000 deaths since the war more than three years ago.
Coalition air raids hit hospitals, clinics, weddings, funerals, factories, and other non-military targets. Fragments of American bombs have been found at numerous sites of attack by human rights groups and The Washington Post.
In August, more than 40 children were killed when a coalition air strike hit their school bus with an American bomb. Saudi Arabia initially claimed that Houthi fighters were inside the bus, but later retreated after international pressure triggered by images of bloodied consequences.
After each air strike, the Yemenis often blame the United States in the same breath as the Saudi-led coalition for their tragedies. Human rights activists have suggested that the United States could be complicit in committing war crimes in Yemen.
The growing number of civilian victims, despite promises from the coalition to be more cautious in their targeting, has increased the attention on the cessation of US refueling by US legislators, trying to curb arms sales in Saudi Arabia and put an end to US involvement in the Yemen war.
In recent Congress meetings, it became clear that the Pentagon had very little control over the military activities of Saudi Arabia in Yemen. In March, Army General Joseph Votel, head of the US Central Command, told Congress that US forces did not track whether US fuel or ammunition was used in coalition operations that resulted in deaths civilians.
Saturday's human rights activists said that the US decision to end support supply was long overdue.
"Any step to keep the fearsome coal bombing in civilian areas in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in Yemen under control is a step in the right direction," said Amnesty International's director of the Middle East, Lynn Maalouf.
But the interruption of supply, he added, "does not go far enough"
Kristine Beckerle, Yemen's researcher for Human Rights Watch, said: "the decision to end refueling is a clear, albeit extremely late, recognition of the terrible way the coalition has waged this war, and of the risks that the United States has taken when it comes to complicity. "
"The US and other coalition allies should seize this moment to suspend all arms sales, call for an end to the abuses and demand responsibility for the many we have seen," added Beckerle.
The disruption of refueling takes place while the coalition has mounted a fierce offensive on the Yemeni port city of Hodeida last week. Scores of air strikes hit in and around the city. Civilian victims are once again crowding airstrikes and bombings. The port is the main gateway to much of the food, fuel, medicines and humanitarian aid entering northern Yemen, where 80% of the population lives.
With the offensive Hodeida now threatening to deepen the crisis, humanitarian workers hope the US will take more measures to help Yemenis.
"The United States has the opportunity to continue taking steps that really make a difference for people in Yemen," said Suze van Meegen, defense and defense advisor to Yemen for the Norwegian Refugee Council.
Among them, he said, "pushing for an immediate ceasefire" and making sure that "all seaports and airports in the country are open and functioning, allowing the rapid transport of food, fuel and people in need of medical care".
With the decision of Friday, greater responsibility for the prevention of civilian casualties will fall directly on the Saudis. It remains to be seen if the Trump administration will be forced to take more steps to curb the coalition.
"Saudi Arabia has framed the announcement as a victory, claiming it has asked the US to stop refueling its aircraft because its improved military professionalism means it can now do it by itself," Kendall said. .
"The question now is: will it be enough to satisfy the Congress that the United States can not be held responsible for wrong air strikes, or is it just a first step for further measures?"
Raghavan reported from Cairo.