Civilians trapped as fighting escalates
Despite US calls for a cease-fire, fighting is escalating in a strategic Yemeni port city, threatening the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians and deepening a humanitarian crisis in which millions are at risk from a looming famine.
The clashes in Hodeida, pitting a US-backed regional coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates against northern Houthi rebels, have caused numerous civilian casualties over the past week, according to residents, health workers and aid agencies. The violence is edging closer to medical facilities, threatening the safety of patients and medical workers.
The fighting has particularly intensified near Hodeida’s port, through which passes more than 70 per cent of all food, fuel, medicine and other essential supplies destined for the northern part of the country, where the large majority of Yemenis live. If the port is damaged, it could be catastrophic for millions of Yemenis, aid workers said.
“Hodeida is once again trapped in violence with hundreds of thousands of Yemenis caught in the middle,” Fabrizio Carboni, a senior official with the International Committee of the Red Cross, said.
Residents said they remain confined inside their houses as battles rage outside. Houthi rebels have dug in, patrolling the streets in machine gun-mounted pickups and deploying fighters in buildings, houses, even hospitals, prompting fears that they are using civilians as human shields.
The coalition, meanwhile, has conducted scores of airstrikes and deployed US-made helicopters to target areas in and around Hodeida, including residential neighbourhoods.
“We have been receiving a lot of civilian casualties,” said Mareb Almahweeti, a surgeon at a military hospital in the city, adding that many of the injured were struck by shrapnel from airstrikes.
“The Apache helicopters are bombing many areas around the city most of the day,” he added. “We also hear airstrikes most of the day. The bombing is closer than before.”
After besieging Hodeida over the summer, the coalition launched a new offensive a week ago, two days after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called for a cease-fire and peace talks within 30 days. An array of militias, aligned with the UAE and the embattled Yemeni government, pushed forward into the city, backed by airstrikes and heavy artillery.
The coalition of Sunni Muslim countries is seeking to oust the Shiite rebels and restore Yemen’s internationally recognised government, not least because the Houthis are widely said to be backed by Iran. The United States is aiding the coalition by refuelling its warplanes and through intelligence and billions of dollars in arms sales.
The escalating bloodshed is alarming the United Nations and Western aid agencies, which in most parts of Yemen are the sole institutions assisting the 14 million people — nearly half the population — who are on the brink of famine. More than 3 million Yemenis have fled their homes and hundreds of thousands more could soon follow if the battle for Hodeida continues.