A day after launching an offensive against the Iran-backed Shiite rebels, known as the Houthis, to capture the Yemeni port city of Hodeida, the Saudi Arabia-led coalition that is backing the Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi government, managed to capture al-Durayhmi town.
Arab warplanes and warships continued to pound Houthi positions in Yemen’s Hodeida on Friday, in an operation called “Golden Victory”, to capture the strategic harbour that is the main entry point for food in a country on the brink of a famine. Even though the death toll could not be ascertained, the UN said last week that in a worst-case scenario as many as 2,50,000 people could be killed in the offensive.
Airstrikes pound regions near Hodeida
Apache attack helicopters bombed a strip of coastal territory near the city’s airport, forcing many residents and civilians to flee the port city.
The Arab coalition also struck the main road linking Hodeida to the capital Sanaa to block reinforcements.
“Heavy airstrikes have been reported along coastal areas and roads in districts south of Hodeida,” AP quoted the Norwegian Refugee Council as saying. The council, however, maintained that no direct attacks have been reported within Hodeida city despite the presence of fighter jets.
Yemeni security officials quoted by AP said that 2,000 troops had crossed the Red Sea from a UAE naval base in Eritrea, with plans to seize the port at Hodeida. A separate Yemeni-UAE force was advancing on the city from the south, near the city’s airports, the officials said.
Meanwhile, United Arab Emirates’ ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva said on Thursday that four Emirati troops were killed in Yemen while taking part in the campaign to retake the port city.
Hodeida has been under Houthi control since 2015
The assault marks the first time the Arab states have tried to capture such a heavily-defended major city since joining the war three years ago against the Houthis, who control Yemen’s capital Sanaa and most of the populated areas.
The offensive by Saudi Arabia and Arab allies comes after the Yemen government said it had exhausted all peaceful and political means to remove the militia from the port of Hodeida, which has been under Houthi control since 2015.
Recapturing the port of Hodeida will deprive the Houthis of access to the Red Sea, possibly ending the virtual stalemate between the rebels and the government. The Houthis control parts of northern Yemen, including Hodeida and the Yemeni capital, while the government controls much of the south.
Importance of Hodeida for Yemen
Hodeida is considered a lifeline for the country’s war-ravaged population. From the 90 per cent of food, fuel, and medicines imported in Yemen, 70 per cent of that enters through Hodeida. Around two-thirds of the country’s population of 27 million relies on aid and 8.4 million are already at risk of starving.
Saudi Arabia and UAE government have announced a “multi-faceted plan” to protect civilians in Hodeida, including establishing routes for food, medical supplies and oil shipments from Saudi Arabia’s southern city of Jizan and the UAE’s capital, Abu Dhabi. Saudi Arabia’s UN ambassador said there were two ships, each carrying 5,000 tons of food, ready to dock immediately at the port of Hodeida.
The United Nations and other aid groups have already pulled out their staff from Hodeida ahead of the assault. After an emergency closed-door meeting on Thursday, the UN Security Council called for Hodeida and the port of Saleef to be kept open and reiterated support for a political solution to the three-year conflict.
US gives tacit backing to Saudi-led assault
UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash has called on the international community to pressure the Houthis to abandon the port. “The international community must pressure the Houthis to evacuate Hodeida and leave the port intact. Their use of land and sea mines shows a cruel & callous disregard for Yemeni lives,” Gargash said in a tweet.
Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the US, Khalid bin Salman, tweeted that the offensive was “critical in light of the growing threat that the Iranian backed Houthi militia poses to the maritime security of the Red Sea”.
“The Houthi’s continued obstruction with regards to Hodeida is due to their use of the port to raise revenues through looting, extortion, and illegal taxation imposed on commercial ships to finance and sustain their military aggression against Yemen and neighboring countries,” Salman said.
The US, however, has not publicly opposed the assault but has urged the coalition to ensure that humanitarian aid deliveries to the port continue. The US has been supplying crucial information to the Saudi-led coalition, as well as refueling their warplanes.
“We do not provide any additional support to the Saudi coalition’s military operations,” Pentagon spokesman Major Adrian Rankine Galloway said.
Meanwhile, Colonel Aziz Rashed, spokesman for an army unit allied with the Houthis, said the rebels foiled a naval attack by government forces backed by the Saudi-led coalition in waters off Hodeida. AP quoted Rashed as saying that the rebels had countered hostile naval warships off the coast of al-Olifika to the south.