The battle for Yemen’s key port of Hodeida

Map of Yemen locating the port of Hodeida, which governmental forces are trying to retake from Huthi rebels

Sanaa (AFP) – Pro-government Yemen military forces supported by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates entered Hodeida airport Tuesday, a key advance in their week-long offensive to dislodge rebel fighters from the vital Red Sea port.

The assault launched on June 13 has alarmed aid groups which rely on the port to deliver the bulk of aid they send to the impoverished war-ravaged country, but UN efforts for a peaceful resolution have failed.

Here is a timeline of the battle for Hodeida:

– Yemen forces launch offensive –

The offensive is launched on June 13 after the Yemeni forces — who have been advancing on the port for months — receive a green light from the Saudi-led coalition that provides essential air and ground support. 

The coalition carries out more than a dozen air strikes on Huthi positions on the outskirts of Hodeida; 22 rebels are killed while three pro-government fighters die in an ambush, medical sources say.

UN envoy Martin Griffiths, leading talks to ensure the continued functioning of the vital port, urges all sides to “exercise restraint and to give peace a chance.” 

Britain requests a UN Security Council meeting and Russia warns of “catastrophic consequences” for the entire aid-dependent country.

– Heavy clashes – 

There is intense fighting on the second day of the offensive, with Saudi-led coalition warplanes and Apache helicopters providing “continuous” air support, although the government advance is hampered by sniper fire and mines.

Medical sources tell AFP that 30 rebels and nine pro-government troops are killed in fighting near Hodeida’s defunct airport, which serves as a rebel base. 

The UAE announces that four of its troops died on the first day of the offensive, when Huthis said they had struck a coalition ship with two missiles.

Sweden calls for the UN Security Council to demand “an immediate freeze” to the assault to allow time for talks on a rebel withdrawal and avert a humanitarian disaster.

But UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash insists “it is clear that for the UN-led political process to succeed, the situation on the ground must change”.

– Rebel leader defiant –

After meeting behind closed doors, the UN Security Council does not demand a halt in the offensive but says the port must remain open.

Saudi Ambassador Abdallah Al-Mouallimi warns that the Huthi rebels could “blow up part of the port” during a retreat. The Huthis will be given safe passage to the north if they withdraw from the city, the UAE ambassador says.

But rebel chief Abdulmalik Al-Huthi urges his men to fight on, promising reinforcements. “The western coast will turn into a big swamp for the invaders,” he says, according to the rebels’ Al-Masirah TV.

On June 15 pro-government forces come under attack along a coastal highway, south of Hodeida, leaving around 12 dead. The fighting disrupts precious supply lines to the military.

– Emergency talks –

Griffiths holds two days of talks in rebel-held Sanaa, where he is believed to be pushing for rebel leaders to cede control of the port to a UN-supervised committee.

But the Huthis say the Hodeida offensive has foiled any potential peace talks and reject a ceasefire under current conditions. They are seeking shared control of the port with the UN.

The UAE says the insurgents must withdraw unconditionally. “Now is not the time to negotiate,” Gargash says.

On June 18 Griffiths tells the Security Council via videoconference that he hopes to relaunch peace talks next month. 

Medical and military sources say at least 164 mostly rebel fighters have died in the week-long offensive.