UN special envoy for Yemen arrived in capital Sanaa for emergency talks with Houthi rebels who are fighting to keep a Saudi-led coalition from taking full control of the airport in the port city of Hudaida.
Saudi-led forces fought to retake the international airport of Yemen’s rebel-held port city of Hudaida, Yemeni officials and witnesses said on Saturday, as their Shia Houthi rebel rivals denied the coalition had seized the facility that is the starving nation’s main gateway for food shipments.
With battles raging at the southern side of Hudaida International Airport, the military of Yemen’s exiled government said it had entirely seized the compound, and that engineers were working to clear mines from nearby areas just south of the city of some 600,000 people on the Red Sea.
“The armed forces which are supported by the Arab coalition have freed Hudaida International Airport from the Houthi militias and the engineering teams have started to clear the airport and its surroundings from mines and bombs,” the military said on its official Twitter account.
“Operation won’t last too long”
Sadek Dawad, spokesman of the Republican Guards force loyal to the Saudi-led coalition, said government forces had battled their way onto the airport’s grounds.
Dawad also said the southern gate of Hudaida city was captured by pro-coalition forces.
“The military operations to liberate the city of Hudaida will not be stopped until we secure the city and its strategic port and that won’t last too long,” he said.
Houthi-linked civil aviation authorities, however, denied that their rivals of the Saudi-led coalition and Yemeni forces have taken control of Hudaida’s airport.
A statement posted Saturday on the Houthis’ official news agency, SABA, quoted Ahmed Taresh, the head of Hudaida airport, as adding that airstrikes have completely destroyed the airport.
The Houthi-run Al Masirah satellite news channel aired footage it described as being from near Hudaida 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!”
Yemeni officials and witnesses said forces from the United Arab Emirates-backed Amaleqa brigades, backed by air cover from the Saudi-led coalition, were heading to eastern Hudaida province to attempt to cut off the main road that links it with the capital, Sanaa.
The officials said that if government forces capture the Kilo 16 Road they will trap the rebels in Hudaida and the western coast and prevent them from receiving supplies from the capital. The rebels are then expected to have no choice but to head to the northern province of Hajjah.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to brief media and the witnesses for fear of reprisals.
The Saudi-led coalition began its assault Wednesday on Hudaida, 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, with targeting guidance and refueling coming from the US.
UN envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths (C) is escorted by bodyguards as he arrives at Sanaa airport in Sanaa, Yemen June 16, 2018. (Reuters)
UN warns of humanitarian crisis
United Nations special envoy Martin Griffiths, meanwhile arrived in Sanaa in an effort to broker a cease-fire.
International aid groups and the UN cautioned the Saudi-led coalition from launching the assault. Their fear is that a protracted fight could force a shutdown of Hudaida’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.
The World Health Organisation expressed concern on Saturday over the fighting around Hudaida, calling for unbroken aid access and protection of health workers.
In a statement Saturday, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said “we stand with our UN partners to call on all parties to the conflict to protect the port, and allow its uninterrupted functioning. We also call on all parties to protect health workers and their facilities from harm, as well as to ensure unimpeded access for medical teams seeking to treat the wounded.”
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 UN panels of experts described in January as “unlikely” as incoming ships require UN permission and are subject to random searches.
Iran accused of aiding Houthis
The UN 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 UN The air campaign and fighting have disrupted other supply lines, causing an economic crisis that makes food too expensive for many to afford.
Aid agencies and the UN evacuated international staff from the city ahead of the offensive. Some of the wounded able to flee are driving onto Aden, some 315 kilometers (195 miles) away, after being stabilized at a hospital in Mocha on the way, the aid group Doctors Without Borders said. The local hospital in Hodeida already is struggling to help the wounded, the group said.
Thousands remain besieged in the city and around the airport due to the fighting.
“Families are trapped inside and it is difficult leaving as they are coming under airstrikes and bombardment by both parties of the war,” relief worker Saber Wasel told The Associated Press. “It was a hard night for citizens because of the intensity of the strikes and gunfire.”
Security officials and witnesses said Saturday that Houthi rebels had also attacked government forces in al-Faza and al-Gah towns on the western coast over the past two days, killing at least 16 troops and wounding at least 13 others, and cut off the road that links between al-Gah and ad-Durayhimi district, some 20 kilometers south Hudaida’s airport.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief media, and the witnesses for fear of reprisals.
The Houthis seized control of Sanaa in September 2014, later pushing south toward the port city of Aden. The Saudi-led coalition entered the conflict in March 2015 and has faced criticism for a campaign of airstrikes killing civilians and destroying hospitals and markets.
The Houthis meanwhile have laid land mines killing and wounding civilians, targeted religious minorities and imprisoned