U.N.: 445,000 have fled be­sieged Red Sea port city

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - WORLD - By Menna Zaki Menna Zaki is an As­so­ci­ated Press writer.

CAIRO — Hun­dreds of thou­sands of Ye­me­nis from the Hodeida area have been forced to flee amid a Saudi-led coali­tion of­fen­sive to take the key Red Sea port city from Shi­ite rebels, the United Na­tions’ refugee agency said Fri­day, as fierce bat­tles con­tinue to rage in the area.

Some 445,000 of the Hodeida gover­norate’s res­i­dents have fled since June, a fig­ure that un­der­scores the dire sit­u­a­tion in and around the city that serves as the main en­try point for food and aid, the UNHCR said. The gover­norate’s pop­u­la­tion is around 3 mil­lion, ac­cord­ing to fig­ures from the Nor­we­gian Refugee Coun­cil.

The UNHCR also ex­pressed con­cern over the safety of those trapped in Hodeida as the in­ten­si­fied mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions “are in­creas­ingly con­fin­ing pop­u­la­tions and cut­ting off exit routes.” Fig­ures on those still in Hodeida are dif­fi­cult to gauge, the agency added.

Ye­meni gov­ern­ment forces sup­ported by the coali­tion’s air and naval forces con­tinue to en­gage in heavy fight­ing with the rebels, known as Houthis. The fight­ing has killed dozens of com­bat­ants from both sides, with dozens of mil­i­tary ve­hi­cles de­stroyed or burn­ing along the front lines.

In a Fri­day state­ment, Ye­men’s in­ter­na­tion­ally rec­og­nized gov­ern­ment based in the south­ern city of Aden said its forces are ad­vanc­ing to­ward the north and west of Hodeida and across all fronts with cover from the coali­tion.

The Saudi-led coali­tion’s lat­est push to­ward Hodeida comes as Ye­men’s civil war is a few months away from en­ter­ing its fourth year. The coali­tion in­ter­vened in Ye­men in March 2015 with the aim of de­feat­ing the Iran-aligned rebels and to re­store the gov­ern­ment of Abed Rabu Man­sour Hadi. But the coali­tion has re­cently come un­der mount­ing in­ter­na­tional pres­sure to end the war that has re­sulted in what the United Na­tions says is the world’s worst hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis.

On Sat­ur­day, the Saudi-led coali­tion said it has “re­quested ces­sa­tion of in­flight re­fu­el­ing” by the U.S. for its fighter jets. The an­nounce­ment came af­ter U.S. of­fi­cials said the Pen­tagon was mov­ing to stop re­fu­el­ing Saudi air­craft. The move comes amid in­creased crit­i­cism of Saudi jets in­dis­crim­i­nately strik­ing mar­kets and hos­pi­tals, killing civil­ians.

The U.S. and Bri­tain., ma­jor arms sup­pli­ers to the Saudi coali­tion, have re­cently called for a cease­fire in Ye­men and the launch of U.N.-led po­lit­i­cal talks to end the SaudiIran proxy war.

The fight­ing around Hodeida, a vi­tal life­line for most of Ye­men’s pop­u­la­tion, threat­ens to worsen Ye­men’s al­ready­dire hu­man­i­tar­ian sit­u­a­tion and risks the ob­struc­tion of cru­cial as­sis­tance to the coun­try en­dan­ger­ing the lives of mil­lions of Ye­me­nis.

The Nor­we­gian Refugee Coun­cil warned of the reper­cus­sions the con­tin­ued fight­ing may have on mil­lions of Ye­me­nis.

“We are now warn­ing that by al­low­ing this to go on, par­ties to the con­flict and their in­ter­na­tional back­ers will be re­spon­si­ble for the death, in­jury and suf­fer­ing of mil­lions of peo­ple,” Mo­hamed Abdi, the coun­cil’s di­rec­tor in Ye­men, said in a state­ment.

AFP / Getty Images

Pro-gov­ern­ment forces gather near Hodeida, as they bat­tle Houthi rebels for con­trol of the city.

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