Saudi-led forces be­gin as­sault on Ye­men port city of Hodeida

Aid groups fear bat­tle could tip mil­lions of peo­ple into star­va­tion

The Welland Tribune - - Canada & World - JON GAMBRELL

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMI­RATES — The Saudi-led coalition backing Ye­men’s ex­iled govern­ment launched a fierce as­sault Wed­nes­day on the port city of Hodeida, the main en­try point for food in a coun­try al­ready tee­ter­ing on the brink of famine.

The at­tack on the Red Sea port aims to drive out Ira­nian-aligned Shi­ite rebels known as Houthis, who have held Hodeida since 2015, and break the civil war’s long stale­mate. But it could set off a pro­longed street-by-street bat­tle that in­flicts heavy ca­su­al­ties.

The fear is that a pro­tracted fight could force a shut­down of Hodeida’s port at a time when a halt in aid risks tip­ping mil­lions into star­va­tion. Some 70 per cent of Ye­men’s food en­ters via the port, as well as the bulk of hu­man­i­tar­ian aid and fuel sup­plies. Around two-thirds of the coun­try’s pop­u­la­tion of 27 mil­lion re­lies on aid and 8.4 mil­lion are al­ready at risk of starv­ing.

Be­fore dawn Wed­nes­day, con­voys of ve­hi­cles ap­peared to be head­ing to­ward the rebel-held city as heavy gun­fire rang out. The as­sault, part of an op­er­a­tion dubbed “Golden Vic­tory,” be­gan with coalition airstrikes and shelling by naval ships, ac­cord­ing to Saudi-owned satel­lite news chan­nels and state me­dia.

Bom­bard­ment was heavy, with one aid official re­port­ing 30 strikes in 30 min­utes.

“Some civil­ians are en­trapped, oth­ers forced from their homes,” said Jolien Veld­wijk, the act­ing coun­try di­rec­tor of the aid group CARE In­ter­na­tional, which works in Hodeida.

“We thought it could not get any worse, but un­for­tu­nately we were wrong.”

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 au­tho­rized 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 claimed rebel forces hit a Saudi coalition ship near Hodeida with two mis­siles. Houthi forces have fired mis­siles at ships pre­vi­ously.

The Saudi-led coalition did not im­me­di­ately ac­knowl­edge the in­ci­dent. The U.S. navy’s 5th Fleet, whose area of re­spon­si­bil­ity in­cludes the Red Sea, re­ferred ques­tions to the Pen­tagon, which did not im­me­di­ately re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment.

Forces loyal to Ye­men’s ex­iled govern­ment and fight­ers led by Emi­rati troops had neared Hodeida in re­cent days. The port is some 150 kilo­me­tres south­west of Sanaa, Ye­men’s cap­i­tal, which has been in Houthi hands since Septem­ber 2014.

The Saudi-led coalition en­tered the war in March 2015.

The United Na­tions and other aid groups al­ready had pulled their in­ter­na­tional staff from Hodeida ahead of the as­sault.

The port re­mains open, with sup­plies ar­riv­ing. Sev­eral ships have ar­rived in re­cent days, in­clud­ing oil tankers, and there has been no word from the coalition or the UN to stop work, ac­cord­ing to a se­nior port official, who spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity. Aid groups nev­er­the­less warned of dis­as­ter.

Robert Mar­dini, the re­gional di­rec­tor for the Red Cross, said the push on Hodeida “is likely to ex­ac­er­bate an al­ready cat­a­strophic hu­man­i­tar­ian sit­u­a­tion in Ye­men.”

“The pop­u­la­tion has al­ready been weak­ened to ex­treme lev­els,” he said.

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.

NA­RI­MAN EL-MOFTY THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

In this Feb. 12, photo, Saudi-backed forces pa­trol in Hodeida, Ye­men. The Saudi-led coalition be­gan an as­sault Wed­nes­day on the port city.

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