Saudi-led forces open as­sault on Ye­men port city of Hodeida

The Oklahoman - - NATION | WORLD - BY JON GAMBRELL

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMI­RATES — The Saudi-led coali­tion back­ing Ye­men’s ex­iled gov­ern­ment launched a fierce as­sault Wed­nes­day on the cru­cial port city of Hodeida, the big­gest of­fen­sive of the years-long war in the Arab world’s poor­est na­tion for the main en­try point for food in a coun­try al­ready tee­ter­ing on the brink of famine.

The at­tack on the Red Sea port aimed to drive out Ira­nian-aligned Shi­ite rebels known as Houthis, who have held Hodeida since 2015, and break the civil war’s long stale­mate. But it could set off a pro­longed street-by-street bat­tle that in­flicts heavy ca­su­al­ties.

The fear is that a pro­tracted fight could force a shut­down of Hodeida’s port at a time when a halt in aid risks tip­ping mil­lions into starvation. Some 70 per­cent of Ye­men’s food en­ters via the port, as well as the bulk of hu­man­i­tar­ian aid and fuel sup­plies. Around two-thirds of the coun­try’s pop­u­la­tion of 27 mil­lion re­lies on aid and 8.4 mil­lion are al­ready at risk of starv­ing.

Be­fore dawn Wed­nes­day, con­voys of ve­hi­cles ap­peared to be head­ing to­ward the rebel-held city as heavy gun­fire rang out. The as­sault, part of an op­er­a­tion dubbed “Golden Vic­tory,” be­gan with coali­tion airstrikes and shelling by naval ships, ac­cord­ing to Saudi-owned satel­lite news chan­nels and state me­dia.

Bom­bard­ment was heavy, with one aid of­fi­cial re­port­ing 30 strikes in 30 min­utes.

“Some civil­ians are en­trapped, oth­ers forced from their homes,” said Jolien Veld­wijk, the act­ing coun­try direc­tor of the aid group CARE In­ter­na­tional, which works in Hodeida. “We thought it could not get any worse, but un­for­tu­nately we were wrong.”

The ini­tial bat­tle plan ap­peared to in­volve a pin­cer move­ment. Some 2,000 troops who crossed the Red Sea from an Emi­rati naval base in the African na­tion of Eritrea were await­ing or­ders to move in from the west af­ter Ye­meni gov­ern­ment forces seize Hodeida’s port, Ye­meni se­cu­rity of­fi­cials said.

Emi­rati forces with Ye­meni gov­ern­ment troops moved in from the south near Hodeida’s air­port, while oth­ers sought to cut off Houthi sup­ply lines to the east, the of­fi­cials said. They spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity as they weren’t au­tho­rized to brief jour­nal­ists.

Ye­men’s ex­iled gov­ern­ment “has ex­hausted all peace­ful and po­lit­i­cal means to re­move the Houthi mili­tia from the port of Hodeida,” it said in a state­ment. “Lib­er­a­tion of the port of Hodeida is a mile­stone in our strug­gle to re­gain Ye­men from the mili­tias.”

Four Emi­rati sol­diers were killed in Wed­nes­day’s as­sault, the United Arab Emi­rates’ state-run news agency said, but gave no de­tails of how they died.

The Houthi-run Al Masirah satel­lite news chan­nel claimed rebel forces hit a Saudi coali­tion ship near Hodeida with two mis­siles. The Saudiled coali­tion did not im­me­di­ately ac­knowl­edge the in­ci­dent.

[AP FILE PHOTO]

In this Feb. 12 photo, Saudi-backed forces, part of Ahmed al-Kawk­a­bani’s, south­ern re­sis­tance unit in Hodeida, pa­trol in Hodeida, Ye­men.

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