Saudi led forces have taken control of the international airport in the rebel-held port city of Hodeida in Yemen. Officers loyal to Yemen’s exiled government and Saudi and UAE troops led the assault on June 16th, as fighting continues in the starving nation’s main gateway for food shipments.
Engineers have been working since Saturday morning June 16th in a bid to clear mines from areas around Hodeida International airport. The airport is just south of the city, which is home to some 600 000 people on the Red Sea, a military spokesperson for Yemen's exiled government said. The offensive is part of a planned all-out assault by Yemeni pro-government forces on the Red Sea port of Hodeida, a lifeline for aid to the war-ravaged country, said al-Kawkabani, head of Yemen’s southern resistance unit.
Yemen's Shi’a rebels, known as Houthis, who hold the country's capital of Sanaa, did not immediately acknowledge losing the airport. The Houthi-run Al Masirah satellite news channel aired footage that it described as being from near Hodeida. It showed a burned-out truck, corpses of irregular fighters and a damaged Emirati armoured vehicle. The Iranian-aligned fighters rifled through a military ledger from the vehicle before chanting slogans, "Death to America, death to Israel, damn the Jews, victory to Islam!"
The Saudi-led coalition began the assault on Hodeida on June 13th. The city is the main entry point for food into a country that is already on the brink of famine. Emirati forces are leading ground forces mixed with their own troops, irregular militiamen and soldiers who back Yemen's exiled government. Saudi Arabia has provided air support, with targeting guidance and refuelling coming from the US.
International aid groups and the United Nations cautioned the Saudi-led coalition against launching the assault. Their fear is that a protracted fight could force a shutdown of Hodeida's port at a time when a halt in aid risks tipping millions into starvation. It is believed that up to 70% of Yemen's food enters via the port, as well as the bulk of humanitarian aid and fuel supplies. Around two-thirds of the country's population of 27 million relies on aid and 8.4 million are already at risk of starving.
The Saudi-led coalition said it had no choice but to launch the assault as the port provided millions of dollars for the Houthis through customs controls. They also accused the Houthis of using the port to smuggle weapons. This is something a UN panel of experts described in January as "unlikely", as incoming ships require UN permission. The ships are also subjected to random searches.
The UN and Western nations say Iran has supplied the Houthis with weapons ranging from assault rifles to the ballistic missiles they have fired deep into Saudi Arabia, including the capital, Riyadh.
According to Associated Press, the coalition has blocked most ports, letting supplies into Hodeida in coordination with the UN. The air campaign and fighting have disrupted other supply lines, causing an economic crisis that makes food too expensive for many to afford.
Aid agencies and the UN evacuated international staff from the city ahead of the offensive. Some of the wounded who were able to flee drove towards Aden, some 315 kilometres away, after first being stabilised at a hospital in Mocha on the way. This is according to the aid group Doctors Without Borders (Medecins sans Frontieres). The local hospital in Hodeida is struggling to help the wounded, the group said.
Thousands remain besieged in the city and around the airport due to the fighting.
"Families are trapped inside and it is difficult leaving as they are coming under airstrikes and bombardment by both sides in the war," relief worker Saber Wasel told Associated Press. "It was a hard night for citizens because of the intensity of the strikes and gunfire."
The Houthis seized control of Sanaa in September 2014, later pushing south towards the port city of Aden. The Saudi-led coalition entered the conflict in March 2015 and has faced criticism for a campaign of airstrikes killing civilians and destroying hospitals and markets. The Houthis meanwhile have laid land mines killing and wounding civilians. They have also targeted other religious minorities and imprisoned opponents.