UAE pulled out of IS air war after pilot capture: US officials

Relatives of Jordanian air force pilot Maaz al-Kassasbeh, who was burned alive by IS extremists, carry posters with his portrait and a slogan reading in Arabic "we are all Maaz" in Amman on January 27, 2015 (AFP Photo/Khalil Mazraawi)

Washington (AFP) - The United Arab Emirates withdrew from coalition air strikes against the Islamic State group in Syria after the capture of a Jordanian pilot since murdered by the jihadists, US officials said Wednesday.

The UAE pulled out of the flights soon after the pilot fell into IS hands in December, a US official told AFP, stressing that the Gulf Arab nation still offers access to important air bases for American aircraft and other support for the coalition effort.

"I can confirm that UAE suspended air strikes shortly after the Jordanian pilot's plane went down," the official said.

"But let me be clear that UAE continues to be an important and valuable partner that is contributing to the coalition," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

UAE's move was first reported by The New York Times.

IS extremists posted a grisly video Tuesday showing the Jordanian airman, Maaz al-Kassasbeh, being burned alive.

Fearing for the safety of its air crews, the UAE raised concerns to Washington about its search-and-rescue resources in the region, officials said.

UAE representatives proposed that American forces deploy their V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft to northern Iraq to be closer to any planes that go down, instead of in Kuwait.

The UAE has indicated that the suspension of its participation in the air campaign would continue until the Osprey aircraft were moved to northern Iraq, according to the Times.

The Ospreys are used for rescue missions because they can take off like helicopters but fly with the speed of a plane.

- 'Americans share risk' -

The Jordanian pilot was reportedly seized by IS jihadists within minutes of his jet crashing near Raqa, Syria, the self-proclaimed IS "capital."

But UAE officials questioned whether US rescue teams would have been able to reach the pilot even if there had been more time, administration officials told the Times.

The UAE foreign minister, Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahayan, asked Barbara Leaf, the US ambassador, why the United States had not put more resources in northern Iraq for rescuing downed pilots, a senior administration official said, according to the Times.

But officials said search efforts for the Jordanian pilot were not affected by the location of rescue aircraft.

"As soon as the plane went down, an intensive airborne search was immediately initiated, and personnel recovery forces were moving toward the pilot's last known location," a defense official said.

"For obvious reasons we don't discuss specific response timelines for personnel recovery, but that was not a major factor in this case. We were not able to locate the pilot before he was picked up by ISIL forces."

The official added that American pilots face the same risks.

"When American pilots fly over enemy territory, they know there are risks involved, but they also know they are backed by an unswerving commitment to recover them if they go down," the defense official said.

"There is no risk coalition airmen are taking that American airmen don't share."

As for stationing aircraft in northern Iraq instead of Kuwait, the official added: "There are considerations other than flying distance associated with where we bed down aircraft, including the personnel and logistics needed to sustain operations."

The United States would continue to assess where aircraft are based "and will make adjustments as needed."

The UAE declined to comment.

"We cannot comment on issues discussed in private meetings," an official source said in Abu Dhabi after The New York Times report.

Apart from the UAE, Bahrain, Jordan and Saudi Arabia take part in US-led air raids in Syria, which began in September.

Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom participate in the air campaign in Iraq, which was launched on August 8.

The United States plays a dominant role in the air war, carrying out at least 80 percent of the raids, according to officials.

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