Khokha (Yemen) (AFP) – Reinforcements rolled into Yemen’s Hodeida Thursday as the army and its regional allies set their sights on the city’s port held by rebels who have vowed to fight to the end.
Military sources said the army, backed by troops from the United Arab Emirates, had been sending backup troops to the area ahead of a major offensive to close in on the Red Sea port.
“Our preparations are in their final stages for the advance on the port,” a military source told AFP, requesting anonymity.
The Iran-allied Huthi rebels have refused to cede control of Hodeida port, the entry point of three quarters of imports to impoverished Yemen.
UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash said the rebels’ full withdrawal “is the only route to avert worsening the situation in and around the city.”
“We will not allow Huthis to divert us from our strategic goals. We will continue to exert military pressure and respect the fragile humanitarian conditions,” he wrote on Twitter.
The Huthis have controlled the port since 2014, when they drove the government out of the capital and seized much of northern Yemen and a string of Red Sea ports.
On June 13, Yemen’s army and its allies launched their offensive to clear Hodeida of the rebels, raising UN concerns for vital aid shipments and food imports through the city’s docks.
Four pro-government fighters and 22 Huthis have been killed in the past 24 hours, medical sources said Thursday, bringing the death toll in the battle for Hodeida to 374.
The pro-government forces announced the capture of the Hodeida airport on Wednesday morning.
The airport had been disused but it housed a major rebel base just inland from the coastal road into the city.
Rebel leader Abdulmalik al-Huthi on Wednesday night called for reinforcements to repel the advance of the UAE-backed government forces.
Local residents are now bracing for what they fear will be devastating street fighting, as tanks and buses carrying uniformed troops roll through the empty streets of the once-bustling city.
The UN’s special envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, said his priority was to “avoid a military confrontation in Hodeida and to swiftly return to political negotiations,” adding he was “encouraged” by his talks with Huthi rebel leaders.
“I will continue my consultations with all parties to avoid further military escalation in Hodeida, which I fear would have severe political and humanitarian consequences,” Griffiths added.
The envoy said he would soon meet with Yemen’s leadership, forced out of Sanaa, without giving a precise date.
– Cholera fears –
The UAE’s foreign minister accused the rebels of laying mines and moving weaponry and snipers into residential areas.
The Hodeida offensive, dubbed Operation Golden Victory, is the most intense battlefront in the already-brutal Yemen war which has left millions displaced.
Since the 2015 intervention of Saudi Arabia and its allies in Yemen, joining the government’s fight against the Huthis, nearly 10,000 people have been killed with a majority of civilian victims.
The United Nations meanwhile expressed concern about a new outbreak in Hodeida of cholera — which has already killed more than 2,000 people in Yemen in nearly a year.
“Even before the recent violence, several districts had been identified to be at highest risk of a renewed outbreak,” said UN spokesman Farhan Haq.
“As part of their obligations under international humanitarian law, parties to the conflict must take care not to damage water and sanitation infrastructure.”