Saudi-led forces begin assault on Yemen port city of Hodeida
A Saudi-led coalition backing began an assault Wednesday on the Yemeni port city of Hodeida, the main entry for food into a country already on the brink of famine, raising warnings from aid agencies that Yemen’s humanitarian disaster could deepen.
The assault on the Red Sea port aims to target Houthis and their allies who have held Hodeida since 2015 and could bring the first major street-to-street fighting for the coalition, a potentially dragged out battle deadly for combatants and civilians alike, AP reported.
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 percent of Yemen’s food enters the country 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 even worse off, at risk of starving already.
Before dawn Wednesday, convoys of vehicles appeared to be heading toward the 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 airstrikes 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 country of Eritrea landed west of the city with plans to seize Hodeida’s port, Yemeni security officials said.
Emirati troops with Yemeni forces loyal to former Yemeni government moved in from the south near Hodeida’s airport, while others sought to cut off Houthi supply lines to the east, the officials said.
The Houthi-run Al-masirah satellite news channel later acknowledged the offensive, saying Houthi forces hit a Saudi coalition ship near Hodeida with two missiles. Houthi forces have fired missiles at ships previously.
“The targeted ship was carrying troops prepared for a landing on the coast of Hodeida,” the channel said.
The port city, home to 600,000 people, is some 150 kilometers (90 miles) southwest of Sana’a, Yemen’s capital and has been held by the Houthis since they swept into the city in September 2014. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and a bloc of other countries intervened in Yemen the following year with the goal of restoring the former government to power and has received logistical support from the US.
Emirati Minister of State for Foreign Affairs 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 on Monday withdrew its international staff from Hodeida, saying an attack would “impact hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians.”
The UN has warned that the likely “catastrophic humanitarian impact” would be worsened due to Hodeida’s key role as an entry point for aid and commercial goods.
“Cutting off imports through Hodeida for any length of time will put Yemen’s population at extreme, unjustifiable risk,” Lise Grande, UN humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, said.
“If this vital route for supplying food, fuel and medicine is blocked, the result will be more hunger, more people without health care and more families burying their loved ones,” Oxfam’s country director in Yemen, Muhsin Siddiquey, warned last week.
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 UN to stop work, according to a senior port official.
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.