Yemeni forces backed by a Saudi-led military coalition launched an assault on Yemen’s most important port early Wednesday, despite warnings of a high civilian death toll and a disruption of critical aid in their bid to defeat the Houthi rebels there.
The battle for Hodeidah could mark a turning point in the three-year-old conflict, which pits the Iran-backed Houthi rebels against a U.S.-backed and Saudi-led military coalition fighting in support of the internationally recognized government of Yemen.
Troops loyal to the Yemeni government were fighting the rebels outside of the Red Sea port of Hodeidah after approaching it from the south, according to residents, humanitarian groups and members of the rebel group. The ground attack on Hodeidah and its surrounding areas was being supported by airstrikes and coalition ships positioned offshore, they said.
But the Houthis pushed back. Loai al-Shami, a Houthi spokesman, said the rebels fired missiles against two coalition ships to stop them from landing on Hodeidah’s shores. “The second ship retreated after the first one was hit,” he said. He said “tens of thousands” of pro-Houthi fighters were taking part in efforts to counter the coalition’s offensive on the port city.
Residents hunkered down as they prepared for the fight to reach the city, leaving Hodeidah’s streets mostly empty.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which is spearheading the offensive, calculate that taking away an important economic lifeline will force the Houthis into a political settlement that ends the conflict.
“The effort to liberate Hodeidah from the Houthi militia is the beginning of a complete victory,” the Yemeni government said Wednesday. The Saudi-led coalition didn’t immediately comment on the operation.
But the United Nations and aid groups warned that a prolonged fight could cripple Yemen’s biggest gateway for humanitarian aid and derail what some see as the most promising international effort yet to broker a peace deal.
The port receives three-quarters of the country’s humanitarian aid and commercial supplies, and even a short disruption in the flow of goods could push millions of people into famine. One U.N. official warned that a protracted battle could claim the lives of up to 250,000 people.
Nearly 80 percent of the country’s 28 million people rely on humanitarian aid, and more than 8 million are on the brink of famine, according to aid groups. The country is vulnerable to another outbreak of cholera, which aid groups said has already killed 1,000 people.
Even as the military operation kicked off, the port remained open, at least for now. Five vessels arrived over the past two days, four carrying food and one fuel, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council.
“If this continues, I can’t see how the port will remain operational,” says
Suze van Meegan
who is based in Yemen with the Norwegian Refugee Council. “This carries implications not just for the people of Hodeidah but for every single person in Yemen.”
the U.N. special envoy for Yemen, on Wednesday warned that a full-scale assault on the port could have “serious consequences on the dire humanitarian situation in the country and will have an impact on my efforts to resume political negotiations to reach an inclusive political settlement.”
Mr. Griffiths implored the coalition and Houthi fighters to agree to a deal. “I call on the parties to exercise restraint and to give peace a chance,” he said.
The U.A.E. had given the U.N. until Tuesday night to craft a deal to avert its campaign to push the Houthi fighters out of the port. Saudi Arabia has accused Iran of using Hodeidah to smuggle missiles to the Houthis, a charge Tehran rejects.
The Trump administration gave the U.A.E. qualified support. One official called it a “blinking yellow light” to proceed with the assault, so long as the coalition did all it could to minimize the civilian death toll, ensure that humanitarian aid continues to flow quickly and prevent the U.N. envoy’s diplomatic push from being derailed.
On Wednesday, a contingent of troops entered the battle after crossing from a U.A.E. naval base across the narrow sea in Eritrea, a person familiar with the matter said. They consisted mainly of Yemeni forces with support elements from the U.A.E. and small numbers of Saudi and Sudanese support forces.
Houthi fire hit a small utility landing craft owned by the U.A.E. as it took part in the operation, causing casualties, according to a person familiar with the situation.
Meanwhile, Saudi state television on Wednesday reported that Yemeni ground troops were a few miles away from Hodeidah’s airport.
To avert a humanitarian crisis, the U.A.E. government on Wednesday said it would accelerate the delivery of food, medicine and other essential supplies to Yemen.
The war in Yemen is gaining renewed attention in Washington, where the Trump administration sees it as a chance to push back on Iran’s influence across the Middle East. But the U.S. has restricted its support for the war because of concerns about the high number of civilian casualties and the lack of a political deal to bring the fighting to an end.
The battle for Hodeidah represents a gamble for the Saudi-led coalition and the Trump administration, which is providing its Gulf allies with intelligence to help them fine-tune their list of airstrike targets for the military campaign.
American military officials on Tuesday said the U.S. military is helping its Gulf allies develop a list of targets in Hodeidah meant to be off limits for airstrikes.
“The intent is to minimize the number of civilian casualties and the harm to critical infrastructure,” said one U.S. military official.
—Asa Fitch, Mohammed al-Kibsi and Saleh al-Batati contributed to this article.
Source : WSJ