A Saudi-led coalition launched an assault on Yemen’s main port city of Hodeidah on Wednesday in the biggest battle of a three-year war between an alliance of Arab states and the Iran-aligned Houthis.
Coalition warplanes and warships pounded Houthi fortifications to support ground operations by Yemeni troops massed south of the country’s largest port, the internationally recognized Yemeni government in exile said.
The “Golden Victory” operation began after the passing of a deadline set by the United Arab Emirates for the Houthis, who hold the capital Sanaa and the main populated areas of Yemen, to quit the sole port under their control.
The Red Sea port is a lifeline for Yemenis, handling 80 percent of essential goods to the impoverished country, which the United Nations says is grappling with the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Some 8.4 million people in Yemen face pre-famine conditions, according to the World Health Organization.
Houthi leader Mohammed Ali Al-Houthi, who has threatened attacks on oil tankers along the strategic Red Sea shipping lane, warned the Western-backed alliance not to attack the port and said on Twitter his forces had targeted a coalition barge.
Houthi-run Al Masirah TV said two missiles struck the barge, but there was no immediate confirmation from the coalition.
The United Nations had been trying to get the parties to reach a deal that would avert an attack on Hodeidah, which it fears would further impede Yemenis’ access to food, fuel and medicine for millions of Yemenis facing disease, including a cholera epidemic.
It estimates that 600,000 people live in the area, and in a worst-case scenario, a battle could cost up to 250,000 lives, as well as cutting off aid and other supplies to millions of people.
ICRC spokeswoman Marie-Claire Feghali said that the assault was “likely to exacerbate an already catastrophic humanitarian situation in Yemen”, where water and electricity networks are vital to the civilian population’s survival.
The assault is the first time since the Western-backed coalition of mostly Gulf states joined the war in 2015 that they have attempted to capture such a well-defended major city. The aim is to box in the Houthis in Sanaa, cut their supply lines and force them to the negotiating table.
“The liberation of the port is the start of the fall of the Houthi militia and will secure marine shipping in the Bab al-Mandab strait and cut off the hands of Iran, which has long drowned Yemen in weapons that shed precious Yemeni blood,” the exiled government said in a statement carried by state-run Yemeni media.
Yemen lies beside the southern mouth of the Red Sea, one of the most important trade routes in the world for oil tankers, which pass near Yemen’s shores while heading from the Middle East through the Suez Canal to Europe.
The UAE has said coalition forces plan to keep the port operational but warned that the Houthis could sabotage infrastructure and place land and sea mines as they withdraw.
Reem al-Hashimy, the UAE minister of state for international cooperation, has said if the port is wrested from the Houthis, the coalition could ease controls, aimed at denying the group arms, and so improve the flow of goods and aid into Yemen.
Riyadh says the Houthis use the port to smuggle in Iranian-made weapons, including missiles that have targeted Saudi cities.