Sanaa (AFP) – Any military assault to capture a key rebel-held port in Yemen would have a “catastrophic humanitarian impact” in the country already reeling from a brutal conflict, the United Nations warned Friday.
Fears have grown as government forces backed up by a Saudi-led coalition have battled closer to Hodeida, the main gateway for aid into Yemen that is controlled by Iran-aligned Huthi rebels.
“A military attack or siege on Hodeida will impact hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians,” Lise Grande, UN humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, said in a statement that estimated up to 600,000 people live in and around the port.
“Humanitarian organisations have rushed to develop a contingency plan. In a prolonged worst case, we fear that as many as 250,000 people may lose everything — even their lives.”
The statement warned that the likely “catastrophic humanitarian impact” would be worsened due to Hodeida’s key role as the point of entry for some 70 percent of Yemen’s imports.
“Cutting off imports through Hodeida for any length of time will put Yemen’s population at extreme, unjustifiable risk,” Grande said.
Yemeni government forces have advanced to within nine kilometres (six miles) of Hodeida, the Saudi-led military coalition said Monday.
The push for the strategic Red Sea port has killed more than 100 soldiers and insurgents, according to medics and military sources close the government.
The rebels, who have so far refused to withdraw from the port, claim 418 loyalist fighters have been killed.
The UN’s top envoy for Yemen pushed for all sides to de-escalate the fighting around Hodeida during a visit this week as he sought to broker negotiations.
The Huthis captured Hodeida and Yemen’s capital Sanaa in 2014, with Saudi Arabia and its allies intervening on behalf of the government the following year.
The conflict in Yemen has left nearly 10,000 people dead in what was already the Arab world’s poorest country.
The UN already considers the situation in the country to be the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
More than 22 million people are now in serious need of aid, with 8.4 million on the brink of starvation, the world body has said.