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Rex Tillerson Says Qatar Blockade ‘Hindering’ Military Operations

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called Friday for several nations to ease their blockade against Qatar.

Tillerson also said Qatar needed to address its neighbors’ concerns about terrorist financing as he sought to find a middle group after President Trump tweeted support for the blockade this week.

“I call on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt to ease the blockade against Qatar,” Tillerson said during a four-minute speech at the State Department. “There are humanitarian consequences to this blockade. We’re seeing shortages of food. Families are being forcibly separated, and children pulled out of school. We believe these are unintended consequences.”

Qatar is home to the largest U.S. military base in the region. The base houses nearly 10,000 U.S. troops and is the forward headquarters of U.S. Central Command.

On Friday, Tillerson said the blockade is “hindering” military operations in the region.

“The blockade is hindering U.S. military actions in the region and the campaign against ISIS,” Tillerson said, referring to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Tillerson’s statement appears to contradict days of Pentagon statements on the issue.

The Pentagon reiterated earlier Friday that the base has not been affected.

“We’re still operating without impact,” Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis told reporters. “All of our supplies are getting in just fine. The Defense Logistics Agency is certainly always looking at contingency plans if they’re needed, but for right now they’re OK.”

After Tillerson’s remarks, the Pentagon issued a new statement saying the base’s operations could suffer if the blockade continues.

“While current operations from Al Udeid Air Base have not been interrupted or curtailed, the evolving situation is hindering our ability to plan for longer-term military operations,” Davis said. “Qatar remains critical for coalition air operations in the fight against ISIS and around the region.”

Tillerson’s statement came after this week’s Middle East crisis seemed to have escalated Friday when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain released a new list of sanctions against a dozen organizations and 59 people linked to Qatar.

The crisis began Monday when those four countries cut diplomatic ties and closed all land, sea and air borders with Qatar. Several other countries followed suit.

Saudi Arabia and the other nations cited Qatar’s relations with Iran, as well as what they say is Qatar’s support for extremist groups such as Hamas, al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Qatar has steadfastly denied the allegations and has largely blamed a hack of its state news organization for the crisis. The hack, which U.S. officials reportedly believe was carried out by Russia, includes the posting of a fake news story.

On Tuesday, Trump took credit for the decision to cut ties, saying his speech in Saudi Arabia calling on Muslim countries to unite against terrorism and Iran was the reason.

In addition to humanitarian and military effects, Tillerson said the blockade is affecting U.S. and international companies’ abilities to operate in the region.

Despite calling for an ease to the blockade, Tillerson said Qatar needs to do more to address the terrorism financing.

“We call on Qatar to be responsive to the concerns of its neighbors,” he said. “The emir of Qatar has made progress in halting financial support and expelling terrorist elements from his country. But he must do more and he must do it more quickly.”

Tillerson said the United States supports the emir of Kuwait’s efforts to mediate.

On Thursday, Qatar rebuffed an invitation from Trump to come to the White House for mediation, saying it would ride out the crisis and that officials didn’t want to leave the country in the middle of it.

Tillerson said he has spoken with “many” leaders in the region in the last few days, and that those conversation have shown him a solution is possible.

“In the last few days, I’ve spoken to many leaders in the region, and as I said to all of them, we know you are stronger together,” he said. “Our expectation is that these countries will immediately take steps to de-escalate the situation and put forth a good-faith effort to resolve the grievances they have with each other.”