View of the Red Sea port city of Hodeidah, Yemen, June 14, 2018. REUTERS/Abduljabbar Zeyad
ADEN, June 16 (Reuters) – Forces from an Arab alliance entered the airport in Yemen’s main port city of Hodeidah Saturday, the coalition-backed Yemeni military said, in an offensive that could give the allies a strong edge over the Iran-aligned Houthi movement.
Victory for the Saudi-led alliance in their first attempt to capture a strategic part of a well-defended city would put the Houthis on the defensive in the three-year conflict, since Hodeidah is the group’s sole Red Sea port.
The U.N. special envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, arrived in the Houthi-held capital Sanaa on Saturday. The United Nations, which failed to find a diplomatic solution to head off the assault, fears the fighting will cut off the only lifeline for millions of Yemenis facing starvation.
“The U.N. envoy has accomplished nothing so far. He provides a cover for the continued aggression,” Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdul-Salam said on Houthi-run media ahead of Griffith’s visit.
The battle for Hodeidah, by far the largest in the conflict, could have ramifications beyond the city of 600,000. Yemen’s conflict is part of a regional proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal and his embrace of nuclear state North Korea have added to Iran’s isolation and put pressure on the Islamic Republic to preserve its interests in Yemen and other Arab states.
Ground troops — which include United Arab Emirates forces, Sudanese and Yemenis drawn from various factions — have surrounded Hodeidah’s main airport compound but have not seized it, a Yemeni military source and residents said.
“We need some time to make sure there are no gunmen, mines or explosive in the building,” the military source said. The military’s media office said technical teams were de-mining the surrounding area.
Fighting led to the closure of the northern entrance of the western city Hodeidah, which leads to Sanaa, residents said.
That has blocked a key exit out of the city and made it more difficult to transport goods from the port, the country’s largest, to mountainous regions.
Aly Omar said he and his family spent three days trapped in the Manzar neighbourhood abutting the airport as fighting raged all around them.
“We didn’t have any food, or drink or anything, not even water,” Omar said, standing in a hospital on Friday night beside his son, who was wounded by an air strike.
“I treated him on a bus after he was injured in an air strike, which is unacceptable. I call on the United Nations and the Red Cross to open a way for us to get out of the situation we’re in. Our kids, women and elderly are stuck …”
Samy Mansour, head of the emergency room at Al-Thawra Hospital, received two dead and 12 wounded.
“We’re still treating people on the scene and transporting them to the hospital,” he said.
FEARS OF FAMINE
The offensive in Hodeidah could trigger a famine imperilling millions of lives, the U.N. has warned. Around 22 million people in Yemen depend on the humanitarian aid efforts, with 8.4 million at risk of starvation.
“Humanitarian agencies cannot currently access areas south of the city where people are most likely to have been injured, affected and displaced, leaving us without a clear picture of needs,” said the Norwegian Refugee Council’s office in Yemen.
Humanitarian organisations were forced to pause almost all operations in Hodeidah, it said.
The Arab alliance, which launched the operation in Hodeidah four days ago, says it can seize the city quickly enough to avoid interrupting aid to the millions facing starvation.
Riyadh accused the Houthis of using the port to smuggle Iranian-made weapons, including missiles that have targeted Saudi cities – accusations denied by the group and Tehran.
If the Hodeidah fighting drags on, causing big coalition casualties and an outcry over a humanitarian catastrophe, it may work in the Houthis’ favour. If the Houthis are pushed out, the coalition could get the upper hand in the war.
The coalition has superior weaponry, including fighter planes. The resilient Houthis, highly experienced in mountain warfare, have advanced on sandal-shod feet and by pick-up truck in battles across Yemen.
Britain, France and the United States back the coalition and provide it with various kinds of aid. French special forces are on the ground in Yemen with UAE forces, the French newspaper Le Figaro reported on Saturday, citing two military sources.
Houthis rule the most populous areas of Yemen, a poor nation of about 30 million people that had been destabilised by internal splits and by al-Qaeda before the war erupted.
Air strikes, blockades and fighting have killed more than 10,000 people since the war started. The Saudi-led alliance intervened in 2015 to restore an internationally recognised Yemeni government in exile and thwart what Riyadh and Abu Dhabi see as efforts by their archfoe, Iran, to dominate the region.