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Pompeo says Saudi-led coalition is trying to reduce Yemen's civilian casualties

(CNN) Secretary of State Mike Pompeo certified to Congress Wednesday that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are making demonstrable actions to reduce harm to civilians in Yemen, averting a move by lawmakers to scale back US support for the Gulf countries' participation in the war there.

Pompeo said in a statement that "the governments of Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates are undertaking demonstrable actions to reduce the risk of harm to civilians and civilian infrastructure resulting from military operations of these governments."

Lawmakers had added a provision to this year's defense spending bill that set a Sept. 12 deadline for Pompeo to certify that Saudi Arabia and the UAE were taking steps to limit civilian deaths, end the conflict and ease what the UN calls the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

If the administration wasn't able to certify that Saudi Arabia and the UAE were taking these steps, the National Defense Authorization Act cut off funding for US military refueling of Saudi warplanes.

President Donald Trump signed the defense bill into law just days after the Saudi-led coalition dropped a US-made bomb on a Yemeni school bus driving through a busy market. It killed 40 children and 11 adults, according to the Houthi-run Health Ministry.

Pompeo said in his statement that ending the conflict in Yemen is a national security priority for the Trump administration.

"We will continue to work closely with the Saudi-led coalition to ensure Saudi Arabia and the UAE maintain support for UN-led efforts to end the civil war in Yemen, allow unimpeded access for the delivery of commercial and humanitarian support through as many avenues as possible, and undertake actions that mitigate the impact of the conflict on civilians and civilian infrastructure," Pompeo said.

Yemen's civil war began in early 2015 and has escalated into a multi-sided battle. According to the UN Human Rights Office, 6,660 civilians have been killed in the conflict and more than 10,500 were injured since March 2015.

Defense Secretary James Mattis praised Pompeo's move in a statement Wednesday:

"The Saudi-led coalition's commitment is reflected in their support for these UN-led efforts," Mattis said. "Alongside the Department of State, we are actively engaged with Mr. Martin Griffiths, the UN Special Envoy, to achieve a negotiated end to this fighting."

A senior State Department official said they realized the certification was a controversial decision, but said it was made for US national security interests, particularly because of Iranian involvement in Yemen. The official said that while the Saudi-led coalition obviously has a lot of work to do, they are making efforts at improving their targeting.

"The Administration recognizes that civilian casualties have occurred at rates that are far too high in the Saudi-led Coalition's campaign in Yemen," the official said, adding that the US believes "civilian casualties must be mitigated and reduced as much as possible for both strategic and moral reasons."

Efforts observed

A State Department spokesperson told CNN that Department of Defense advisers and embassy personnel on the ground said they have observed efforts by Saudi Arabia and UAE to reduce civilian casualties. The spokesperson also said that the administration believes both countries are complying with applicable agreements and laws regulating defense equipment purchased or transferred from the US.

The spokesperson also said the administration has found that both nations are making efforts to end the conflict and reduce the humanitarian toll of the crisis.

"We are engaging the Saudi-led coalition to urge them to strengthen measures that reduce the risk of harm to civilians and civilian infrastructure," the spokesperson said. "The Department of State and the Department of Defense will continue to press Saudi Arabia and the UAE on this issue at the highest levels."

CNN's Elise Labott, Salma Abdelaziz, Alla Eshchenko and Joe Sterling contributed to this report.
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