RIYADH - Yemeni government forces are closing in on the rebel-held port city of Hodeida, the war-ravaged country’s main conduit for humanitarian aid, the Saudi-led coalition said on Monday.
“The Yemeni army backed by the coalition is around 20 km (12 miles) outside Hodeida and military operations are ongoing,” coalition spokesman Turki al-Maliki told reporters in Riyadh.
The Red Sea port has been a key point of contention in Yemen’s war since Saudi Arabia and its allies intervened on behalf of the government in 2015 against Iran-allied Houthi rebels.
Hodeida is Yemen’s largest entry point for aid on which millions depend, as the country teeters on the brink of famine.
But for neighboring Saudi Arabia, Hodeida is seen as the entry point for rebel weaponry — which it accuses regional rival Tehran of supplying.
“Our goal is to cut the vein that the Houthis are benefiting from” in their war effort, Maliki said.
Maliki’s announcements came after rebel chief Abdul Malik al-Huthi said in a defiant televised address Sunday that the Huthis were ready to thwart any military operation by the coalition on Hodeida.
In November 2017, the coalition announced a total blockade on Hodeida in response to a rebel ballistic missile attack that targeted the Saudi capital Riyadh.
That embargo was eased under international pressure, but the coalition has meanwhile set its sights on retaking Hodeida by land — especially as rebel missile attacks have increased.
The United Nations has warned that any operation aimed at seizing Hodeida itself would disrupt the entry of aid shipments to Yemen, 70 percent of which flow through the rebel-held port.
“The key question isn’t whether the coalition can take Hodeida,” tweeted Gerald Feierstein, a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen and a director at the Middle East Institute.
“It’s what they intend to do next. Can they use control of the port to ensure humanitarian supplies can get in unimpeded?”
The United Arab Emirates — a key member of the Saudi-led alliance — has taken the initiative to ramp up the coastal offensive, leading a disparate collective of forces with the stated goal of taking Hodeida.
The forces include the “Giant Brigades” — a former elite unit of the Yemeni army, rebuilt by the UAE — which has been at the vanguard of the offensive, reinforced by thousands of fighters from southern Yemen.
The second key force, the “National Resistance,” are loyalists of Yemen’s ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was assassinated by his former Huthi allies in December. The force is commanded by Tarek Saleh, nephew of the former strongman.
The third force, the “Tihama Resistance,” is named for the Red Sea coastal region and made up of locals from the area loyal to Yemen’s exiled president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
The fighting in western Yemen has been fierce, slowed by landmines that Yemeni military sources say have been laid by the insurgents.
“With the battle for Hodeida, the conflict enters a new phase, but likely not an endgame,” Peter Salisbury, a fellow at the think tank Chatham House, said on Twitter.
“The question for me is how long the battle for Hodeida will last and how much damage will be done to the most important port in the country. If fight runs into weeks / months and is extremely destructive … that’s very bad news for ordinary Yemenis.”
Nearly 10,000 people have been killed since the Saudi-led alliance launched its intervention in Yemen in March 2015.
In addition, more than 2,200 others have died from cholera and millions are on the verge of famine in what the United Nations says is the world’s gravest humanitarian crisis.