Fight­ing re­sumes around key Ye­meni port city Hodeida

Financial Chronicle - - AROUND THE GLOBE - JON GAMBRELL

FIGHT­ING re­sumed on Thursday around the Ye­men port city of Hodeida as a Saudi-led coali­tion tries to re­take it from Shi­ite rebels known as Houthis. Wit­nesses de­scribed heavy fight­ing to the city's south, near its air­port.

The Saudi-led coali­tion back­ing Ye­men’s ex­iled gov­ern­ment launched an as­sault on the port city of Hodeida on Wednesday. The Red Sea port is the main en­try for food into a coun­try al­ready on the brink of famine.

The big­gest of­fen­sive of the years-long war in the Arab world's poor­est na­tion has raised warn­ings from aid agen­cies that Ye­men's hu­man­i­tar­ian dis­as­ter could deepen.

The at­tack is aimed at driv­ing 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-bystreet 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.

Early on Wednesday, con­voys of ve­hi­cles headed 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.

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 were await­ing or­ders to move in from the west af­ter Ye­meni gov­ern­ment forces seize Hodeida's port, Ye­meni se­cu­rity of­fi­cials said.

Emi­rati forces with Ye­meni gov­ern­ment 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.”

Four Emi­rati sol­diers were killed in Wednesday’s as­sault, the United Arab Emi­rates’ state-run news agency said, but gave no de­tails of how they died.

The Houthi-run Al Masirah satel­lite news chan­nel claimed rebel forces hit a Saudi coali­tion ship near Hodeida with two mis­siles. The Saudi-led coali­tion did not im­me­di­ately ac­knowl­edge the in­ci­dent.

Forces loyal to Ye­men's ex­iled gov­ern­ment and fight­ers led by Emi­rati troops had neared Hodeida in re­cent days. The port is some 150 kilo­me­ters (90 miles) 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 UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil was sched­uled to meet Thursday to dis­cuss the of­fen­sive.

The port has re­mained open, how­ever. Sev­eral ships ar­rived in re­cent days, in­clud­ing oil tankers, and there was no word from the coali­tion or the U.N. to stop work, ac­cord­ing to a se­nior port of­fi­cial, who spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause he was not au­tho­rized to talk to the me­dia.

Aid groups nev­er­the­less warned of dis­as­ter.

More than 10,000 peo­ple have been killed in Ye­men's civil war, which has dis­placed 2 mil­lion oth­ers and helped spawn a cholera epi­demic. Saudi-led airstrikes have killed large num­bers of civil­ians and dam­aged vi­tal in­fra­struc­ture.

The UN and Western na­tions say Iran has sup­plied the Houthis with weapons, from as­sault ri­fles to the bal­lis­tic mis­siles they have fired deep into Saudi Ara­bia, in­clud­ing at the cap­i­tal, Riyadh.

The coali­tion has blocked most ports, let­ting sup­plies into Hodeida in co­or­di­na­tion with the UN The air cam­paign and fight­ing have dis­rupted other sup­ply lines, caus­ing an eco­nomic cri­sis that makes food too ex­pen­sive for many to af­ford.

Late Wednesday, the Saudi and Emi­rati gov­ern­ments an­nounced what they called a "multi-faceted plan" to pro­tect civil­ians in Hodeida, in­clud­ing estab­lish­ing routes for food, med­i­cal sup­plies and oil ship­ments from Saudi Ara­bia's south­ern city of Jizan and the UAE's cap­i­tal, Abu Dhabi.

In this Jan­uary 3, 2017, file photo, a tribesman loyal to the Houthi rebels, right, chants slo­gans dur­ing a gath­er­ing aimed at mo­bi­liz­ing more fight­ers into bat­tle­fronts to fight pro-gov­ern­ment forces in sev­eral Ye­meni cities, in Sanaa, Ye­men

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