RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — The top U.S. commander for the Middle East got a first-hand look on Wednesday at Saudi Arabia's military fight against Yemen's rebels, visiting the border area on the same day the Saudi-led coalition was accused of bombing a hotel and killing civilians.
Gen. Joseph Votel's trip to the Saudi-Yemeni border area comes as the U.S. presses on with a campaign targeting al-Qaida-linked militants in Yemen and tries to determine its level of support for key allies engaged in the impoverished country's violent civil war.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other close partners of Washington have been fighting Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen for more than two years. While they've received American support, they've also been heavily criticized for high civilian death tolls.
Underscoring the danger to civilians, Votel's visit to the border area coincided with airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition on a small hotel north of the capital, Sanaa. Dozens of people were reportedly killed, including rebels and civilians.
Votel never crossed into Yemeni territory during the visit, which lasted much of the day, Air Force Col. John Thomas, a U.S. Central Command spokesman said.
He said the small group traveling with Votel got separated from him at one point and there were other logistical problems, including a vehicle breakdown.
The objective of Votel's 600-mile day trip from Riyadh to Saudi Arabia's southwestern Jizan region was "to develop a better understanding of the Saudi challenges with security the border," Thomas said.
Votel met with Saudi Arabia's Lt. Gen. Fahd Bin Turki, toured an operations center and met Saudi commanders and troops. It was his first visit to the Yemen border region as head of Central Command.
Media traveling with Votel weren't allowed to accompany him. Officials cited a lack of seats on the aircraft used to ferry him to the region.
The U.S. has conducted more than 80 airstrikes against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula fighters in Yemen this year, in an expanded campaign to target a group the U.S. has long considered one of the most dangerous threats against the American homeland. AQAP has been responsible for a number of attempted attacks in the United States, including multiple plots to blow up U.S. airliners flying over the country.
After taking office, President Donald Trump authorized a more aggressive approach against AQAP. But only days into his tenure, a ground raid produced the first casualty of his presidency with the death of a U.S. Navy SEAL, Senior Chief William "Ryan" Owens.
The airstrike campaign against AQAP has been complicated by Yemen's ongoing civil war. For more than two years, a Saudi-led coalition of Sunni monarchies has been bombing the Iranian-backed, Shiite rebels known as Houthis. The rebels have launched repeated cross-border attacks into Saudi and fired missiles at American and other allied ships off Yemen's coast.
However, the U.S. has repeatedly complained to the Saudis and others about rising civilian casualty tolls from airstrikes.
And U.S. lawmakers have pressed for investigations into allegations of torture and other human rights abuses of detainees by U.A.E. and Yemeni forces in a network of secret prisons around Yemen. Those abuses were first reported by The Associated Press earlier this year, raising questions about whether American forces working with the Yemenis were aware of torture.
Still, the Trump administration plans to sell more than $500 million in precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia. The sale is part of Trump's proposed $110 billion arms package to Riyadh, which the administration has touted as a U.S. jobs creator that also improves a key ally's military capability.
A Senate effort to stop the munitions sale failed. Opponents have sharply criticized Saudi conduct in Yemen's war and the kingdom's record at home of human rights abuses.