Coalition battles Houthis to liberate Hodeida
Dubai - Over 10,000 people have been killed in Yemen's civil war, which has displaced two million more.
A Saudi-led coalition backing Yemen's exiled government began an assault on Wednesday morning on Yemen's port city of Hodeida, a crucial battle in the 3-year-old conflict that aid agencies warned could push the Arab world's poorest country into further chaos.
Iranian-aligned rebels known as Houthis and their allies for years have held the Red Sea port, crucial to food supplies in a nation on the brink of famine after years of war. The battle for Hodeida, if the Houthis don't withdraw, also may mark the first major street-to-street urban fighting for the Saudi-led coalition, which can be deadly for both combatants and civilians alike.
Before dawn on Wednesday, convoys of vehicles appeared to be heading towards the rebel-held city, according to videos posted on social media. The sound of heavy, sustained gunfire clearly could be heard in the background.
Saudi-owned satellite news channels and later state media announced the battle had begun, citing military sources. They also reported coalition air strikes and shelling by naval ships.
The initial battle plan appeared to involve a pincer movement. Some 2,000 troops who crossed the Red Sea from an Emirati naval base in the African nation of Eritrea landed west of the city with plans to seize Hodeida's port, Yemeni security officials said.
Emirati forces with Yemeni troops moved in from the south near Hodeida's airport, while others sought to cut off Houthi supply lines to the east, the officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity as they weren't authorised to brief journalists.
Yemen's exiled government "has exhausted all peaceful and political means to remove the Houthi militia from the port of Hodeida", it said in a statement. "Liberation of the port of Hodeida is a milestone in our struggle to regain Yemen from the militias."
The Houthi-run Al Masirah satellite news channel later acknowledged the offensive.
Forces loyal to Yemen's exiled government and fighters led by Emirati troops had neared Hodeida in recent days. The port is some 150km southwest of Sanaa, Yemen's capital held by the Houthis since they swept into the city in September 2014. The Saudi-led coalition entered the war in March 2015 and has received logistical support from the US.
UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Dr Anwar Gargash earlier told French newspaper Le Figaro the deadline for a withdrawal from Hodeida by the Houthis expired early Wednesday morning.
The United Nations and other aid groups already had pulled their international staff from Hodeida ahead of the rumoured assault.
Over 10,000 people have been killed in Yemen's civil war, which has displaced two million more.
Meanwhile, the UN and Western nations say Iran has supplied the Houthis with weapons from assault rifles up to the ballistic missiles they have fired deep into Saudi Arabia, including at the capital, Riyadh.
Before the war, over 70 per cent of Yemen's food and fuel imports came through Hodeida, accounting for over 40 per cent of the nation's customs income. The port remains crucial for incoming aid, food and medicine for a nation.
The UN says some 600,000 people live in and around Hodeida, and "as many as 250,000 people may lose everything - even their lives" in the assault. Already, Yemeni security officials said some were fleeing the fighting. "We hear sounds of explosions. We are concerned about missiles and shells. Some workers have left to their villages for fear of the war," said Mohamed, a Hodeida resident who gave only his first name for fear of reprisals.
He said dozens of families have fled their homes in the city, heading to the countryside. "We have had more than 30 air strikes within 30 minutes this morning around the city. Some civilians are entrapped, others forced from their homes," said Jolien Veldwijk, country director of the aid group CARE International, which works in Hodeida.