ADEN, YEMEN - A Saudi-led coalition launched an assault on Yemen’s main port city of Hodeida on Wednesday in the biggest battle of a three-year war between an alliance of Arab states and the Iran-aligned Houthis.
Coalition warplanes and warships pounded Houthi fortifications to support ground operations by Yemeni troops massed south of the country’s largest port, the internationally recognized Yemeni government in exile said.
Before dawn Wednesday, convoys of vehicles appeared to be heading toward the rebel-held city, according to videos posted on social media. The sound of heavy, sustained gunfire clearly could be heard in the background.
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 and the main populated areas of Yemen, to quit the sole port under their control.
The Red Sea port is a lifeline for Yemenis, handling 80 percent of essential goods to the impoverished country, which the United Nations says is grappling with the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Some 8.4 million people in Yemen face pre-famine conditions, according to the World Health Organization.
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 Hodeida, which it fears would further impede Yemenis’ access to food, fuel and medicine for millions of Yemenis facing disease, including a cholera epidemic.
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.
ICRC spokeswoman Marie-Claire Feghali said that the assault was “likely to exacerbate an already catastrophic humanitarian situation in Yemen,” where water and electricity networks are vital to the civilian population’s survival.
The assault is the first time since the Western-backed coalition of mostly Gulf states joined the war in 2015 that they have attempted to capture such a well-defended major city. The aim is to box in the Houthis in Sanaa, cut their supply lines and force them to the negotiating table.
UAE-backed Yemeni forces — drawn from southern separatists, local units from the Red Sea coastal plain and a battalion led by a nephew of late former president Ali Abdullah Saleh — are fighting alongside Emirati and Sudanese troops.
The alliance intervened in Yemen to restore the government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and thwart what Riyadh and Abu Dhabi see as the expansionist aims of their Shiite foe, Iran.
“The liberation of the port is the start of the fall of the Houthi militia and will secure marine shipping in the Bab al-Mandab strait and cut off the hands of Iran, which has long drowned Yemen in weapons that shed precious Yemeni blood,” the exiled government said in a statement carried by state-run Yemeni media.
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 pass near Yemen’s shores while heading from the Middle East through the Suez Canal to Europe.
The UAE has said coalition forces plan to keep the port operational but warned that the Houthis could sabotage infrastructure and place land and sea mines as they withdraw.
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 so improve the flow of goods and aid into Yemen.
Riyadh says the Houthis use the port to smuggle in Iranian-made weapons, including missiles that have targeted Saudi cities. The accusations are denied by the group and Iran.
Over 10,000 people have been killed in Yemen’s civil war, which has displaced 2 million more.
The Saudi-led coalition has been criticized for its airstrikes killing civilians. Meanwhile, the U.N. and Western nations say Iran has supplied the Houthis with weapons from assault rifles up to the ballistic missiles they have fired deep into Saudi Arabia, including at the capital.