Yemeni forces backed by a Saudi-led coalition launched a major offensive today to retake the rebel-held port city of Hodeida, despite UN warnings of a "catastrophic humanitarian impact".
Field commanders told AFP that troops pushed towards Hodeida airport after Yemeni pro-government forces received a "green light" from the coalition.
The offensive is controversial because the port serves as the entry point for 70 per cent of Yemen's imports as the country teeters on the brink of famine.
The coalition accuses the Huthi rebels of using the port to secure Iranian arms, notably the ballistic missiles the militants have increasingly fired into Saudi territory. Coalition sources said the alliance carried out 18 air strikes on Huthi positions on the outskirts of Hodeida today.
According to medical sources in the province, 22 Huthi fighters were killed by coalition raids, while three pro-government fighters were killed in a rebel ambush south of Hodeida. The port city, home to 600,000 people, was captured by the Iran-backed insurgents in 2014 along with the capital Sanaa.
Yemen's government said yesterday that negotiations had failed to force the rebels from Hodeida, and that a grace period for UN-led peace efforts was over.
The United Nations on Monday withdrew its international staff from Hodeida, saying an attack would "impact hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians." The UN has warned that the likely "catastrophic humanitarian impact" would be worsened due to Hodeida's key role as an entry point for aid and commercial goods.
"Cutting off imports through Hodeida for any length of time will put Yemen's population at extreme, unjustifiable risk," Lise Grande, UN humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, said.
The UAE, a pillar of the anti-Huthi coalition, says retaking Hodeida is necessary to force the rebels to make concessions.
"The current & illegal Huthi occupation of Hodeida is prolonging the Yemeni war. The liberation of the city & port will create a new reality & bring the Huthis to the negotiations," Emirati State Minister for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash tweeted yesterday.
Hadi, who lives in exile in Riyadh, was also seeking to repair relations with Abu Dhabi, which has sidelined him over the past year by backing rival forces.
They are backed on the ground by the UAE, while Saudi Arabia has been leading a campaign of air strikes.
Analysts say anti-rebel forces are determined to drive the Huthis from the key port, having failed to score any major victories since the first year of the war.
The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) has raised alarm over the plight of Hodeida's 300,000 children and the risk that drinking water supplies will be disrupted.
"UNICEF has pre-prepositioned supplies in Hodeida: over 20,000 basic hygiene kits (one kit per family). 40,000 additional kits are in the pipeline. We hope we don't need to use them," UNICEF Yemen representative Meritxell Relano said on her Twitter account.
The Huthi leadership yesterday called on the international community to "pressure a halt to the escalation", warning an assault on Hodeida would put Red Sea navigation at risk. Saudi Arabia's ambassador in Washington Khaled bin Salman also yesterday said the retaking of Hodeida was critical, tweeting that the Iran-backed rebels posed a "growing threat" to maritime security.
Today, the Huthis said they targeted a coalition warship off the coast of Hodeida with two missiles, with rebel outlet Al-Masirah claiming a direct hit.
(This story has not been edited by Business Standard staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)