Bat­tle rages in Ye­men's vi­tal port as cease­fire looms

The Guardian Australia - - News / Politics / World News - Bethan McKer­nan Mid­dle East cor­re­spon­dent

In­stead of bring­ing calm to the be­sieged Ye­meni city, calls for a cease­fire in Hodei­dah have brought some of the worst vi­o­lence the vi­tal port has yet faced in the three-year war.

Baseem al-Janani, who lives in the city, said: “The clashes are ab­so­lutely crazy right now. I have a headache from the shelling and bomb­ing in the east. Peo­ple are trapped in their houses for hours at a time be­cause of shrap­nel and gun­fire. But their houses are not safe ei­ther.”

In the past few days, more than 100 airstrikes have hit civil­ian neigh­bour­hoods – five times as many as in the whole of the first week of Oc­to­ber, ac­cord­ing to Save the Chil­dren staff in Hodei­dah.

Pro-gov­ern­ment mili­tias are try­ing to seize as much ground as pos­si­ble be­fore fight­ing is sup­posed to stop at the end of No­vem­ber, when it is hoped UN-spon­sored peace talks will restart in Swe­den. Saudi Ara­bia and United Arab Emi­rates coali­tion-backed troops are inch­ing closer to the city’s Houthi rebel-held cen­tre from their cur­rent stale­mate po­si­tions in the south­ern sub­urbs and at the air­port in a three­p­ronged at­tack.

The Houthis, too, have stepped up op­er­a­tions, lay­ing an es­ti­mated 1m land­mines in an­tic­i­pa­tion of the coali­tion at­tack, co­de­named Op­er­a­tion Golden Vic­tory. On Tues­day, fighters raided the city’s May 22 hos­pi­tal – named for Ye­men’s na­tional day – and set up sniper po­si­tions on the build­ing’s roof, Janani said.

“We don’t have enough hospi­tals any­way. The pa­tients and staff are now ter­ri­fied they will be an airstrike tar­get,” he said.

Hodei­dah is Ye­men’s life­line. Be­fore the war broke out in 2015, it han­dled most im­ports in a coun­try where 90% of food had to be im­ported.

The port has been block­aded by the Saudi-led coali­tion for the past three years, a de­ci­sion aid or­gan­i­sa­tions say has been the main con­tribut­ing fac­tor to the famine that threat­ens to en­gulf half of Ye­men’s 28 mil­lion pop­u­la­tion.

Since a fresh of­fen­sive on Hodei­dah be­gan in June, civil­ian deaths have risen by 164%, ac­cord­ing to a re­port by the armed con­flict lo­ca­tion and event data project (Acled), and at least 50,000 peo­ple have been dis­placed. Many who would flee are trapped by the fight­ing.

The coali­tion hopes re­tak­ing the city will clear a path to drive the Houthis out of the cap­i­tal, Sana’a, and end the war. But a full-scale at­tack has been de­layed sev­eral times, as the UN and aid agen­cies warn fight­ing that dam­ages the port’s fa­cil­i­ties could cause cat­a­strophic suf­fer­ing across the coun­try.

Bhanu Bhat­na­gar, a spokesper­son for Save the Chil­dren, said: “The hunger

cri­sis in Ye­men shows no sign of fad­ing as long as the fight­ing per­sists.

“Even those chil­dren who are on the road to re­cov­ery are fall­ing back into life-threat­en­ing, ex­treme hunger be­cause the heavy bom­bard­ment pre­vents them from reach­ing clin­ics to seek help, or be­cause their fam­i­lies be­come dis­placed due to the fight­ing.”

In the event of a full-scale at­tack, the rebels are ex­pected to with­draw to the high­lands sur­round­ing the city, but have promised to de­liver “hell on hell” to the coali­tion first.

Hisham al-Omeisy, a Ye­men an­a­lyst, said: “We al­ways thought Hodei­dah was a red line. The in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity was al­ways op­posed to an op­er­a­tion there. But the coali­tion is show­ing it is will­ing to cross it, and that must scare the Houthis.”

Ye­men has largely avoided ur­ban war­fare to date. But the city’s 600,000 res­i­dents – of which Unicef says about half are chil­dren, a group par­tic­u­larly sus­cep­ti­ble to the coun­try’s cholera and mal­nu­tri­tion crises – have long feared a gru­elling street-by-street of­fen­sive to re­take the city.

“We have a say­ing in Ye­men,” Omeisy said. “‘When you’re sac­ri­fic­ing a lamb, don’t drag the knife slowly across its neck.’ If it must be sac­ri­ficed, make it quick.”

The Houthis have proved hard to bring to the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble, de­spite re­cent progress made by the UN’s spe­cial en­voy, Martin Grif­fiths.

A pro­posal this sum­mer to put the port un­der UN ju­ris­dic­tion was re­port­edly re­jected by the Houthi lead­er­ship, who feared giv­ing up con­trol of one of their most im­por­tant as­sets.

The talks have been given a new lease of life in the af­ter­math of the killing of the jour­nal­ist Ja­mal Khashoggi af­ter he vis­ited the Saudi Ara­bian con­sulate in Is­tan­bul, which has led to al­most uni­ver­sal op­pro­brium and a diplo­matic cri­sis for Riyadh.

A Ye­meni aid worker, who asked not to be named, said: “It seems there is a new push to end the war now from the coali­tion. The Saudis want to cover up their other crime.”

Riyadh’s al­lies in Wash­ing­ton have also sig­nalled that hos­til­i­ties in Ye­men must be brought to a close – a marked change in tone from a few months ago, when the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion all but gave the green light for an of­fen­sive on Hodei­dah.

Dr Elis­a­beth Kendall of Ox­ford Univer­sity said: “There is a rea­son­able chance that [De­cem­ber peace talks] in Swe­den will ma­te­ri­alise.

“Most of the in­gre­di­ents re­quired are in place. The in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity, in­clud­ing the US and UK, is now even more stri­dently be­hind push­ing for talks to hap­pen, recog­nises that this may need un­palat­able con­ces­sions from both sides, and ac­knowl­edges that the con­flict will not be solved mil­i­tar­ily.”

In the in­terim, though, the fe­ro­cious fight­ing in Hodei­dah con­tin­ues. Janani said: “Many peo­ple here are too poor to es­cape, fuel is too ex­pen­sive. We are stuck, al­ways wait­ing, al­ways afraid.”

Pho­to­graph: STRINGER/EPA

Ye­meni gov­ern­ment forces take part in op­er­a­tions against Houthi po­si­tions in Hodei­dah.

Pho­to­graph: Abdo Hy­der/AFP/Getty Im­ages

A mal­nour­ished child re­ceives treat­ment ata hos­pi­tal in Hodei­dah.

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