By Arab News
Troops backed by the Saudi-led coalition reached the outskirts of Yemen’s main port city of Hodeidah’s airport on Wednesday.
The coalition launched an assault on Hodeidah earlier, in the biggest battle of the three-year war between the alliance of Arab states and the Iran-aligned Houthis.
Coalition warplanes and warships were carrying out strikes on Houthi fortifications to support ground operations by Yemeni troops massed south of the Red Sea port, the internationally recognized Yemeni government said in a statement.
The “Golden Victory” operation began after the passing of a deadline set by the United Arab Emirates for the Houthis, who hold the capital Sanaa, to quit the sole port under their control.
Hodeidah is the lifeline for the majority of Yemen’s population, who live in Houthi territory.
Houthi leader Mohammed Ali Al-Houthi, who has threatened attacks on oil tankers along the strategic Red Sea shipping lane, warned the Western-backed alliance not to attack the port and said on Twitter his forces had targeted a coalition barge.
Houthi-run Al Masirah TV said two missiles struck the barge, but there was no immediate confirmation from the coalition.
The United Nations had been trying to get the parties to reach a deal that would avert an attack on Hodeidah, which it fears would further impede Yemenis’ access to food, fuel and medicine, exacerbating the world’s most urgent humanitarian crisis in the impoverished Arab state.
It estimates that 600,000 people live in the area, and in a worst-case scenario, a battle could cost up to 250,000 lives, as well as cutting off aid and other supplies to millions of people facing starvation and disease.
The assault on Hodeidah is the first time the Saudi-led Arab coalition Western-backed coalition have attempted to capture such a well-defended major city, with the aim of boxing in the Iran backed Houthis in Sanaa and cutting their supply lines to force them to the negotiating table.
The alliance intervened in Yemen to restore the government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and thwart what Riyadh and Abu Dhabi see as the expansionist aims of their Shiite foe, Iran.
“The liberation of Hodeidah port is a turning point in our struggle to recapture Yemen from the militias that hijacked it to serve foreign agendas,” the Yemeni government said in a statement carried by state-run media.
“The liberation of the port is the start of the fall of the Houthi militia and will secure marine shipping in Bab Al-Mandab strait and cut off the hands of Iran, which has long drowned Yemen in weapons that shed precious Yemeni blood.”
The Houthis deny they are Iranian pawns and say their revolt aims to target corruption and defend Yemen from invaders.
Yemen lies beside the southern mouth of the Red Sea, one of the most important trade routes in the world for oil tankers, which navigate near Yemen’s shores while heading from the Middle East through the Suez Canal to Europe.
Reactions to the ‘Golden Victory’ operation to re-take Hodeidah have been muted, apart from the UN. Lise Grande, UN resident and humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, speaking by telephone from the capital Sanaa, said that her office was drawing up options to ensure aid delivery to millions of Yemenis “in case of a possible siege of Hodeidah,” including a humanitarian airlift.
“We are distributing food, hygiene, nutritional supplies and shelter materials. We have a ship offloading food even as shelling and bombing is happening,” Grande said. “The UN is already taking steps in case of a possible siege including airlift capability.”
Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi has called Wednesday for a speedy liberation of Hodeidah to spare its people from catastrophe. Hadi added that the Yemeni government offered numerous concessions trying to persuade the Houthi militia to withdraw from Hodeidah to prevent a military show down there, but the militia refused.
Prince Khalid bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz, the Saudi ambassador to Washington, said on his Twitter account that “operations to liberate the city of Hodeidah are a continuation of the support delivered by the Saudi-led Arab coalition to the Yemeni people, and a way to support their freedom against the militia supported by Iran bent on sowing chaos and destruction in the country.
Yemeni forces on Wednesday got closer to Hodeidah after taking control of the suburb of Nekheila south of the town and the port of Hodeidah.
The Saudi ambassador to Washington added in a separate tweet that the Saudi-led coalition’s operations to re-take Hodeidah are important in the light of the increased threat the militias controlling the port have been posing for maritime security in the Red Sea.
Reem Al-Hashimy, the UAE minister of state for international cooperation, has said if the port is wrested from the Houthis, the coalition could ease controls aimed at denying the group arms and ease the flow of goods and aid into Yemen, where millions face starvation and disease.
Riyadh says the Houthis use the port to smuggle Iranian-made weapons, including missiles that have targeted Saudi cities — accusations denied by the group and Iran.