Ye­men of­fen­sive could bring dis­as­ter

Edmonton Journal - - WORLD - Raf Sanchez

LON­DON • The Saudi-led mil­i­tary coali­tion in Ye­men de­fied the UN Wed­nes­day and launched a ma­jor as­sault on the port of Hodei­dah, de­spite warn­ings that the de­struc­tion of the coun­try’s most vi­tal life­line could lead to the deaths of 250,000 peo­ple.

The of­fen­sive sets the stage for what could be the largest bat­tle of the three­year war, as Ye­meni forces sup­ported by Saudi Ara­bia and the UAE at­tempt to clear Hodei­dah of Houthi rebel fight­ers aligned with Iran.

Hodei­dah is a city of 600,000 and the at­tack is the most am­bi­tious op­er­a­tion launched so far by the coali­tion, rais­ing fears of bloody street bat­tles with civil­ians caught in the cross­fire.

Around 70 per cent of Ye­men’s im­ports come through Hodei­dah, in­clud­ing the vast ma­jor­ity of its food, and the UN con­ducted a week of fran­tic diplo­macy to try to avert the at­tack.

But the fight­ing be­gan early Wed­nes­day, with Ye­meni fight­ers sup­ported by the UAE at­tack­ing the south­ern edges of the city as coali­tion war­planes launched a wave of airstrikes. Around 22 Houthi fight­ers were killed, while three coali­tion fight­ers died.

The UN’s main con­cern is that the fight­ing will dam­age the port or stop the ar­rival of food, medicine and fuel. Around 22 mil­lion peo­ple in Ye­men are de­pen­dent on aid, with at least eight mil­lion on the verge of famine. About 10,000 peo­ple have been killed since fight­ing be­gan in 2015.

The In­ter­na­tional Com­mit­tee of the Red Cross said the at­tack was “likely to ex­ac­er­bate an al­ready cat­a­strophic hu­man­i­tar­ian sit­u­a­tion in Ye­men.”

Anas Sha­hari, a spokesman for Save the Chil­dren Ye­men, said the port ap­peared to op­er­at­ing at nearly full ca­pac­ity Wed­nes­day and that most of the fight­ing was hap­pen­ing on the south­ern out­skirts of Hodei­dah. But if the bat­tle drew closer to the port or to the densely pop­u­lated city cen­tre, the ef­fects could be dev­as­tat­ing.

“There are 300,000 chil­dren in the city and many of them are mal­nour­ished and ex­clu­sively re­liant on aid. If we leave them with­out as­sis­tance, a lot of chil­dren are go­ing to die,” Sha­hari said.

Ye­men’s in­ter­na­tion­ally rec­og­nized gov­ern­ment, backed by the Saudis and the West, said it had “ex­hausted all peace­ful and po­lit­i­cal means” to re­take Hodei­dah. “The ef­fort to lib­er­ate Hodei­dah is the be­gin­ning of a com­plete vic­tory,” the gov­ern­ment said.

The Saudi-led coali­tion al­leges that Hodei­dah is be­ing used by the Houthis to smug­gle weapons from Iran, in­clud­ing bal­lis­tic mis­siles that have been fired into Saudi Ara­bia.

The UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil will hold an emer­gency meet­ing Thurs­day on the Saudi-led coali­tion’s of­fen­sive. Rus­sia’s UN Am­bas­sador Vass­ily Neben­zia, the cur­rent coun­cil pres­i­dent, said the United King­dom asked for the meet­ing.

NA­BIL HAS­SAN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

A col­umn of Ye­meni pro-gov­ern­ment forces and ar­moured ve­hi­cles ar­rives near Hodei­dah air­port on Wed­nes­day, in an of­fen­sive that is tar­get­ing the port where most of the coun­try’s food ar­rives, spark­ing famine con­cerns.

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