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

Malta Independent - - WORLD -

A Saudi-led coali­tion backing Ye­men’s ex­iled gov­ern­ment be­gan an as­sault Wed­nes­day morn­ing on Ye­men’s port city of Hodeida, a cru­cial bat­tle in the 3year-old con­flict that aid agen­cies warned could push the Arab world’s poor­est coun­try into fur­ther chaos.

Ira­nian-aligned Shi­ite 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 Wed­nes­day, con­voys of ve­hi­cles ap­peared to be head­ing to­ward 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 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 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 ac­knowl­edged the of­fen­sive, claim­ing rebel 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 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 ir­reg­u­lar 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 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 U.S.

Emi­rati Min­is­ter of State for For­eign Af­fairs An­war Gar­gash ear­lier told French news­pa­per Le Fi­garo the dead­line for a with-

drawal 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 ru­mored as­sault.

Over 10,000 peo­ple have been killed in Ye­men’s civil war, which has dis­placed 2 mil­lion more and helped spawn a cholera epi­demic. The Saudi-led coali­tion has been crit­i­cized for its airstrikes killing civil­ians. Mean­while, the U.N. 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 per­cent of Ye­men’s food and fuel imports came through Hodeida, ac­count­ing for over 40 per­cent of the na­tion’s cus­toms in­come. The port re­mains cru­cial for in­com­ing aid, food and medicine for a na­tion driven to the brink of famine by the con­flict and a Saudi-led block­ade. A Saudi-led airstrike in 2015 de­stroyed cranes at Hodeida. The United Na­tions in Jan­uary shipped in mo­bile cranes to help un­load ships there.

The U.N. 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 have had more than 30 airstrikes within 30 min­utes this morn­ing around the city. 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.”

U.N. Sec­re­tary-Gen­eral An­to­nio Guter­res had said that U.N. en­voy Martin Grif­fiths was in “in­tense ne­go­ti­a­tions” in an at­tempt to avoid a mil­i­tary con­fronta­tion. How­ever, Grif­fiths’ re­cent ap­point­ment as en­voy and his push for new ne­go­ti­a­tions may have en­cour­aged the Saudiled coali­tion to strengthen its hand ahead of any peace talks with the Houthis.

The at­tack also comes as Washington has been fo­cused on Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s re­cent sum­mit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. A state­ment from Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo said Mon­day he spoke with Emi­rati of­fi­cials and “made clear our de­sire to address their se­cu­rity con­cerns while pre­serv­ing the free flow of hu­man­i­tar­ian aid and life-sav­ing com­mer­cial imports.”

De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis on Mon­day ac­knowl­edged the U.S. con­tin­ues to pro­vide sup­port to the Saudi-led coali­tion.

“It’s pro­vid­ing any in­tel, or any­thing we can give to show no-fire ar­eas where there are civil­ians, where there’s mosques, hos­pi­tals, that sort of thing — (and) ae­rial re­fu­el­ing, so no­body feels like I’ve got to drop the bomb and get back now,” he said.

It wasn’t im­me­di­ately clear what specific Amer­i­can sup­port the coali­tion was re­ceiv­ing Wed­nes­day.

Del­e­gates at­tend the FIFA congress on the eve of the opener of the 2018 soc­cer World Cup in Moscow, Rus­sia, yes­ter­day. The congress in Moscow is set to choose the host or hosts for the 2026 World Cup Pho­to­graph: AP

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