Senators seek to block $1.15 billion U.S. arms sale to Saudi Arabia

September 8, 2016 3:00 PM EDT

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By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Four U.S. senators introduced a joint resolution on Thursday seeking to block the U.S. sale of $1.15 billion of Abrams tanks and other military equipment to Saudi Arabia, citing issues including the conflict in Yemen.

The measure was introduced by Republican Senators Rand Paul and Mike Lee and Democrats Chris Murphy and Al Franken, the latest indication of strong disapproval of the deal among some U.S. lawmakers.

"Selling $1.15 billion in tanks, guns, ammunition, and more to a country with a poor human rights record embroiled in a bitter war is a recipe for disaster and an escalation of an ongoing arms race in the region," Paul said in a statement.

In August, 64 members of the House of Representatives signed a letter urging President Barack Obama to delay the sale.

The Pentagon announced on Aug. 9 that the State Department has approved the potential sale of more than 130 Abrams battle tanks, 20 armored recovery vehicles and other equipment to Saudi Arabia.

The U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency, which implements foreign arms sales, said that General Dynamics would be the principal contractor for the sale.

Introducing the resolution, the senators cited the conflict in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia is leading a coalition in support of forces loyal to the exiled government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi who are trying to oust Iran-allied Houthi forces from the capital, Sanaa.

Human rights groups have criticized the coalition's air strikes because of the deaths of civilians.

"Thousands of civilians are being killed, and terrorist groups inside the country, like al Qaeda and ISIS, are getting stronger. Until the Saudis' conduct changes, the U.S. should put a pause on further arms sales," Murphy said in a statement.

Some congressional aides questioned whether Congress had the right to try to block the sale, since it has been more than 30 days since Congress was notified about it.

But the four senators said the Arms Export Control Act of 1976 allows senators to force a vote on an arms sale by a president.

Human rights activists applauded the resolution.

"Congress’ silence would signal to the Yemeni people that U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen is unconditional – no matter how cruel the parties’ methods of warfare or how unwilling they are to make peace," Scott Paul, senior humanitarian policy advisor at Oxfam America, said in a statement.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Mohammad Zargham, Grant McCool and David Gregorio)

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