SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Saudi-led forces heading an assault on Yemen’s rebel-held port city of Hodeida seized control of its international airport Saturday, officials loyal to Yemen’s exiled government said, as fierce fighting continued for the nation’s main gateway for food shipments.
Engineers worked from Saturday morning to clear mines from areas around Hodeida International Airport, just south of the city of some 600,000 people on the Red Sea, the military of Yemen’s exiled government said.
Yemen’s Shiite rebels known as Houthis, who hold the country’s capital of Sanaa, did not immediately acknowledge losing the airport.
However, the Houthi-run Al Masirah satellite news channel aired footage it described as being from near Hodeida showing a burned-out truck, corpses of irregular fighters and a damaged Emirati armored vehicle. The Iranian-aligned fighters rifled through a military ledger from the vehicle before chanting their slogan: “Death to America, death to Israel, damn the Jews, victory to Islam!”
The Saudi-led coalition began its assault Wednesday on Hodeida, the main entry for food into a country already on the brink of famine. Emirati forces are leading ground forces mixed with their own troops, irregular militiamen and soldiers backing Yemen’s exiled government. Saudi Arabia has provided air support.
International aid groups and the United Nations cautioned the Saudi-led coalition from launching the assault. Their fear is that a protracted fight could force a shutdown of Hodeida’s port at a time when a halt in aid risks tipping millions into starvation. Some 70 percent of Yemen’s food enters via the port, as well as the bulk of humanitarian aid and fuel supplies. Around two-thirds of the country’s population of 27 million relies on aid and 8.4 million are already at risk of starving.
For its part, the Saudi-led coalition says it had no choice but to launch the assault as the port provided millions of dollars for the Houthis through customs controls. They also accuse the Houthis of using the port to smuggle weapons through, something a U.N. panels of experts described in January as “unlikely.”
The U.N. and Western nations say Iran has supplied the Houthis with weapons, from assault rifles to the ballistic missiles they have fired deep into Saudi Arabia, including at the capital, Riyadh.
The coalition has blocked most ports, letting supplies into Hodeida in coordination with the U.N. The air campaign and fighting have disrupted other supply lines, causing an economic crisis that makes food too expensive for many to afford.
Associated Press writer Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.