Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi movement fought on Saturday to keep a Saudi-led coalition from taking full control of the airport in the port city of Hodeidah, in an offensive the UN says could trigger a famine imperilling millions of lives.
The alliance, led in the Hodeidah assault by the United Arab Emirates, is attempting to capture the well-defended city and push the Houthis out of their sole Red Sea port, in the biggest battle of the war. “Death and poverty are all around us. We are scared to leave our homes after the fighting reached the airport,” Abdelqader, who used to work at a cement plant, said by telephone from Hodeidah. “No work, no salary, we are just waiting for God’s mercy.”
Ground troops including Emiratis, Sudanese and Yemenis from various factions have surrounded the main airport compound but have not seized it, a source in the coalition-allied Yemeni military and residents said.
Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdul-Salam said Saudi-led forces had not entered Hodeidah airport and warned the assault on the city would undermine chances for a peaceful settlement. “A battle of attrition awaits the Saudi alliance which it cannot withstand. The Saudi coalition will not win the battle in Hodeidah,” he told Lebanon-based al-Mayadeen TV. Martin Griffiths, the UN special envoy to Yemen, arrived in the Houthi-held capital Sanaa as fears grew that the fighting will sever the only lifeline to the vast majority of Yemenis.
The battle for Hodeidah could have ramifications far beyond the densely-populated city of 600,000. Yemen’s conflict is part of a regional proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from Iran’s nuclear deal and his embrace of nuclear state North Korea have added to Tehran’s isolation and put pressure on the Islamic Republic to preserve its interests in Yemen and other Arab states. Fighting closed off the city’s northern exit, blocking a key route east to Sanaa and making it harder to transport goods from Yemen’s biggest port to mountainous regions.
Houthis rule the most populous areas of chronically unstable Yemen, a poor nation of about 30 million people. More than 10,000 people have died in the war that began in 2015.
Aly Omar and his family spent three days trapped in the Manzar neighbourhood abutting the airport as fighting raged.
“We didn’t have any food, or drink or anything, not even water,” Omar said, standing in a hospital on Friday night beside his wounded son.
“I treated him on a bus after he was injured in an air strike … I call on the United Nations and the Red Cross to open a way for us to get out of the situation we’re in. Our kids, women and elderly are stuck.” Aid groups are failing to cope in Yemen, where around 22 million people depend on humanitarian assistance and 8.4 million are at risk of starvation. “Humanitarian agencies cannot currently access areas south of the city where people are most likely to have been injured, affected and displaced, leaving us without a clear picture of needs,” said the Norwegian Refugee Council’s office in Yemen.
The Arab alliance, which launched the operation in Hodeidah four days ago, said it can take the city quickly enough to avoid interrupting aid and would focus on capturing the airport and port and avoid street fighting.