Assault begins on Yemen port city

AP, DUBAI

Thu, Jun 14, 2018 - Page 6

A Saudi-led coalition backing Yemen’s exiled government yesterday morning began an assault on Yemen’s port city of Hodeida, a crucial battle in the three-year-old conflict that aid agencies said could push the Arab world’s poorest country into further chaos.

Iranian-aligned Shiite rebels known as Houthis and their allies have for years held the Red Sea port, crucial to food supplies in a nation on the brink of famine after years of war.

The battle for Hodeida, if the Houthis do not withdraw, might also mark the first major street-to-street urban fighting for the Saudi-led coalition, which could be deadly for both combatants and civilians alike.

Before dawn, convoys of vehicles appeared to be heading toward the rebel-held city, videos posted on social media showed.

The sound of heavy, sustained gunfire could clearly be heard in the background.

Saudi-owned satellite news channels and later state media announced that the battle had begun, citing military sources. Houthi media did not immediately report the attack.

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.”

The port is about 150km southwest of Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, which as been held by the Houthis since they swept into the city in September 2014.

The deadline for a withdrawal from Hodeida by the Houthis expired yesterday morning, Emirati Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash earlier told French newspaper Le Figaro.

The UN and other aid groups already had pulled their international staff from Hodeida ahead of the rumored assault.

Before the war, more than 70 percent of Yemen’s food and fuel imports came through Hodeida, accounting for more than 40 percent of the nation’s customs income.

The port remains crucial for incoming aid, food and medicine for a nation driven to the brink of famine by the conflict and a Saudi-led blockade.

A Saudi-led airstrike in 2015 destroyed cranes at Hodeida. The UN in January shipped in mobile cranes to help unload ships.

About 600,000 people live in and around Hodeida and “as many as 250,000 people may lose everything — even their lives” in the assault, the UN said.

UN envoy Martin Griffiths was in “intense negotiations” in an attempt to avoid a military confrontation, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres had said.

However, Griffiths’ recent appointment as envoy and his push for new negotiations might have encouraged the Saudi-led coalition to strengthen its hand ahead of any peace talks with the Houthis.