A Saudi-led coalition backing Yemen’s exiled government began an assault Wednesday morning on Yemen’s port city of Hodeida, a crucial battle in the 3-year-old conflict that aid agencies warned could push the Arab world’s poorest country into further chaos.
Iranian-aligned Shiite rebels known as Houthis and their allies for years have held the Red Sea port, crucial to food supplies in a nation on the brink of famine after years of war.
The battle for Hodeida, if the Houthis don’t withdraw, also may mark the first major street-to-street urban fighting for the Saudi-led coalition, which can be deadly for both combatants and civilians alike.
On Wednesday morning, convoys of vehicles appeared to be heading toward the rebel-held city.
The sound of heavy, sustained gunfire clearly could be heard in the background.
The initial battle plan appeared to involve a pincer movement.
Some 2,000 troops who crossed the Red Sea from an Emirati naval base in the African nation of Eritrea landed west of the city with plans to seize Hodeida’s port, Yemeni security officials said.
Emirati forces with Yemeni troops moved in from the south near Hodeida’s airport, while others sought to cut off Houthi supply lines to the east, the officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity as they weren’t authorized to brief journalists.
Yemen’s exiled government “has exhausted all peaceful and political means to remove the Houthi militia from the port of Hodeida,” it said in a statement. “Liberation of the port of Hodeida is a milestone in our struggle to regain Yemen from the militias.”
Forces loyal to Yemen’s exiled government and irregular fighters led by Emirati troops had neared Hodeida in recent days.
The port is some 150 kilometeres (90 miles) southwest of Sanaa, Yemen’s capital held by the Houthis since they swept into the city in September 2014. The Saudi-led coalition entered the war in March 2015 and has received logistical support from the U.S.
Emirati Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash earlier told French newspaper Le Figaro the deadline for a withdrawal from Hodeida by the Houthis expired early Wednesday morning.
The United Nations and other aid groups already had pulled their international staff from Hodeida ahead of the rumored assault.
Over 10,000 people have been killed in Yemen’s civil war, which has displaced 2 million more and helped spawn a cholera epidemic.
The Saudi-led coalition has been criticised for its airstrikes killing civilians.
Meanwhile, the U.N. and Western nations say Iran has supplied the Houthis with weapons from assault rifles up to the ballistic missiles they have fired deep into Saudi Arabia, including at the capital, Riyadh.
Story by the Associated Press.