The United Nations warned of the possibly disastrous consequences of the attack.
AL HUDAYDAH: Yemeni forces backed by a Saudi-led coalition launched a major offensive on Wednesday to retake the rebel-held port city of Al Hudaydah, despite UN warnings of a “catastrophic humanitarian impact”.
Field commanders said that troops pushed towards Hodeida International Airport after Yemeni pro-government forces received a “green light” from the coalition.
The offensive is controversial because the port serves as the entry point for 70% of Yemen’s imports as the country teeters on the brink of famine.
The coalition accuses the Houthi rebels of using the port to secure Iranian arms, notably the ballistic missiles the militants have increasingly fired into Saudi territory.
Coalition sources said the alliance carried out 18 air strikes on Houthi positions on the outskirts of Al Hudaydah on Wednesday.
According to medical sources in the province, 22 Houthi fighters were killed by coalition raids, while three pro-government fighters were killed in a rebel ambush south of Al Hudaydah.
The port city, home to 600,000 people, was captured by the Iran-backed insurgents in 2014, along with the capital Sana’a.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and a bloc of other countries intervened in Yemen the following year with the goal of restoring the government to power.
Yemen’s government said on Tuesday that negotiations had failed to force the rebels from Al Hudaydah, and that a grace period for UN-led peace efforts was over.
“All peaceful and political means of removing the Houthi militia from Al Hudaydah port have been exhausted,” the government said in a statement carried by Yemen’s state news agency Saba.
The United Nations on Monday withdrew its international staff from Al Hudaydah, saying an attack would “impact hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians”.
The UN has warned that the likely “catastrophic humanitarian impact” would be worsened due to Al Hudaydah’s key role as an entry point for aid and commercial goods.
The UAE, a pillar of the anti-Houthi coalition, says retaking Al Hudaydah is necessary to force the rebels to make concessions.
Ahead of the offensive, the UAE sought to project unity with the Yemeni government after months of strained relations – most recently over its military activities on the Yemeni island of Socotra.
Yemeni President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi held rare talks in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday night with Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed.
“Our destiny and that of Yemen will continue to be one, and our shared pain and bloodshed will draw us closer,” the UAE strongman told Hadi, Yemen’s state news agency Saba reported.
Hadi, who lives in exile in Riyadh, was also seeking to repair relations with Abu Dhabi, which has sidelined him over the past year by backing rival forces.
“In the meeting, President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi hailed the positions of the UAE leadership … in defending a common destiny,” Saba said.
Yemeni forces massing around Al Hudaydah are a mix of local fighters, those loyal to President Hadi, and supporters of the ex-head of state, Ali Abdullah Saleh.
They are backed on the ground by the UAE, while Saudi Arabia has been leading a campaign of air strikes.
Analysts say anti-rebel forces are determined to drive the Houthis from the key port, having failed to score any major victories since the first year of the war.
The UN Children’s Fund has raised alarm over the plight of Al Hudaydah’s 300,000 children and the risk that drinking water supplies will be disrupted.
The Houthi leadership on Tuesday called on the international community to “pressure a halt to the escalation”, warning an assault on Al Hudaydah would put Red Sea navigation at risk.
Saudi Arabia’s ambassador in Washington Khaled bin Salman also on Tuesday said the retaking of Al Hudaydah was critical, tweeting that the Iran-backed rebels posed a “growing threat” to maritime security.
On Wednesday, the Houthis said they targeted a coalition warship off the coast of Al Hudaydah with two missiles, with rebel outlet Al-Masirah claiming a direct hit.
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