Ye­men: Saudi-led coali­tion be­gins bat­tle for vi­tal port

The Guardian Australia - - World News - Pa­trick Win­tour Diplo­matic editor

The Saudi-led coali­tion in Ye­men has launched an all-out as­sault on the rebel-held port of Hodei­dah in a move that coali­tion lead­ers have claimed could be com­pleted within a week.

Su­laiman Al­mazroui, the United Arab Emi­rates’ UK am­bas­sador, said the Red Sea port could be cap­tured with­out dis­rupt­ing vi­tal hu­man­i­tar­ian sup­ply lines or di­rectly en­dan­ger­ing the lives of more than 600,000 peo­ple liv­ing in the city and sur­round­ing ar­eas.

Coali­tion war­planes and war­ships on Wednesday pounded fortifications in the Houthi-con­trolled city to sup­port ground oper­a­tions by Ye­meni, UAE and Su­danese troops massed on its south­ern ap­proaches.

The in­for­ma­tion min­is­ter of the ex­iled Ye­meni gov­ern­ment, Muam­mar al-Iryan, warned Hodei­dah res­i­dents not to “al­low any sniper or gun­men from Houthi [rebel] mili­tia on the roofs of your houses. Stay away from mil­i­tary camps ... Do not store petrol prod­ucts.”

Al­mazroui told re­porters the coali­tion had con­tin­gency plans to re­place any loss of aid caused by coali­tion airstrikes.

Say­ing the oper­a­tion, known as “Golden Vic­tory”, was still in a pre­lim­i­nary phase, he ex­plained “the way we see it go­ing we don’t think it is go­ing to take that long”, adding: “We are hop­ing it will take days not months. If things go as planned, there will be no short­age of food.”

His as­sess­ment has been chal­lenged by the UN and aid agen­cies op­er­at­ing on the ground, who warn the at­tack will paral­yse the frag­ile dis­tri­bu­tion of food through the re­gion, which has al­ready been af­fected by famine.

Aid agen­cies warn it will cut off hu­man­i­tar­ian sup­ply lines to mil­lions and di­rectly en­dan­ger the lives of up to 200,000 peo­ple liv­ing in the city.

As much as 80% of the aid that reaches the coun­try, in­clud­ing medicines, fuel and food, goes through the port, but the Saudi-led coali­tion claims the Ira­nian-backed Houthis use it to smug­gle arms and raise taxes.

An es­ti­mated 8.4 mil­lion peo­ple in Ye­men face pre-famine con­di­tions, ac­cord­ing to the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion.

United Na­tions diplo­mats, backed by Bri­tain and the US, spent days press­ing the UAE and Saudi Ara­bia to de­lay the at­tack, but were re­buffed by Gulf states who were con­vinced the as­sault would not be as bloody as aid agen­cies pre­dicted. Martin Grif­fiths, the UN spe­cial en­voy for Ye­men, had warned an at­tack would set his peace plan back.

A let­ter pub­lished on Wednesday from 40 Bri­tish MPs, in­clud­ing the chairs of for­eign, in­ter­na­tional development and hu­man rights se­lect com­mit­tees, has called on Theresa May to con­demn the at­tack on Hodei­dah and use all avail­able means to end the as­sault in­clud­ing “with­drawal of ma­te­rial sup­port for com­bat­ants”.

The at­tack marks the first time the Saudi-led coali­tion has tried to cap­ture such a heav­ily de­fended ma­jor city since it en­tered the war three years ago against the Houthis, who con­trol the cap­i­tal Sana’a and most of the pop­u­lated ar­eas.

Care In­ter­na­tional, one of the few aid agen­cies still op­er­at­ing in Hodei­dah, said 30 airstrikes hit the city within half an hour on Wednesday.

“Some civil­ians are en­trapped, oth­ers forced from their homes. We thought it could not get any worse, but un­for­tu­nately we were wrong,” said Care’s act­ing coun­try di­rec­tor, Jolien Veld­wijk.

Al­mazroui said the at­tack would force the Houthis to the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble. He added that Abu Dhabi’s crown prince, Sheikh Mo­hammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, had con­sulted the US and France, adding that “they are both sup­port­ive of the UAE help to the Ye­meni forces”.

The claim of French sup­port for the at­tack on Hodei­dah has been de­nied by the French gov­ern­ment. Al­mazroui said the UK had urged the UAE to give Grif­fiths, the UN spe­cial en­voy, more time to ne­go­ti­ate the Houthi re­treat from the port.

The coali­tion claims its rapid ad­vance up the coast south of Hodei­dah proves the Houthi forces are not as en­trenched as some have sug­gested. It ar­gues the cap­ture of the port will shorten the three-year civil war by tip­ping the mil­i­tary bal­ance to­wards the coali­tion, forc­ing the Houthis to ne­go­ti­ate.

How­ever, the In­ter­na­tional Com­mit­tee of the Red Cross on Wednesday said the as­sault was “likely to ex­ac­er­bate an al­ready cat­a­strophic hu­man­i­tar­ian sit­u­a­tion in Ye­men”.

Ye­men’s ex­iled gov­ern­ment, which is still recog­nised by the UN, said: “The lib­er­a­tion of Hodei­dah port is a turn­ing point in our strug­gle to re­cap­ture Ye­men.”

The at­tack is be­ing led on the ground by forces loyal to Ye­men’s for­mer pres­i­dent Ali Ab­dul­lah Saleh, who was as­sas­si­nated by his for­mer Houthi al­lies in De­cem­ber. It is com­manded by Tarek Saleh, his nephew.

The UAE for­eign min­is­ter, An­war Gar­gash, said the coali­tion had given the Houthi forces nearly three days to leave the port be­fore the at­tack started.

“The Houthis can­not hold Hodei­dah hostage to fi­nance their war and di­vert the flow of hu­man­i­tar­ian aid,” he said. “Their as­sault on the Ye­meni peo­ple has con­tin­ued for too long.”

The as­sault led to a bar­rage of warn­ings and crit­i­cism, in­clud­ing claims that the UK and US, both closely tied to the Saudis, had ef­fec­tively given the as­sault a green light by not in­ter­ven­ing more de­ci­sively to de­ter it.

Swe­den is ex­pected to de­mand an open meet­ing of the UN se­cu­rity coun­cil on Wednesday. Ef­forts by some se­cu­rity coun­cil mem­bers at a closed ses­sion on Tuesday to agree a state­ment ex­plic­itly con­demn­ing the at­tack in prin­ci­ple failed, partly ow­ing to op­po­si­tion from the US and UK.

In a state­ment, the Bri­tish for­eign sec­re­tary, Boris John­son, made no call for the UAE to end the at­tack, in­stead urg­ing the coali­tion-backed forces to do all they could to pro­tect civil­ians, as well as the com­mer­cial and hu­man­i­tar­ian flows through the port. He said it was im­per­a­tive to re­sume work to­wards a com­pre­hen­sive po­lit­i­cal set­tle­ment.

The for­mer UK in­ter­na­tional development sec­re­tary An­drew Mitchell has ac­cused the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment of be­ing “com­plicit” in the at­tack, and said the UK was us­ing its po­si­tion on the se­cu­rity coun­cil to pro­tect its ally Saudi Ara­bia.

In the US, a cross-party group of sen­a­tors in­clud­ing Bob Corker, the Repub­li­can chair of the for­eign re­la­tions com­mit­tee, wrote to the US sec­re­tary of state, Mike Pom­peo, ex­press­ing “grave alarm at the at­tack”.

Pho­to­graph: Na­jeeb Almahboobi/EPA

Su­danese forces fight­ing along­side the Saudi-led coali­tion in Ye­men gather near the out­skirts of Hodei­dah on Tuesday.

Pho­to­graph: Na­jeeb Almahboobi/EPA

Ye­meni forces backed by the Saudi-led coali­tion gather near the out­skirts of Hodei­dah.

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