Forces from an Arab alliance have “freed” the airport in Yemen’s main port city of Hodeidah, the media office of the Yemeni military allied with the Saudi-led coalition said.
“Army forces backed by the resistance and the Arab alliance freed Hodeidah international airport from the grip of the Houthi militia,” the media office said on Twitter on Saturday.
It said technical teams were now de-mining the area.
The Saudi-led coalition, led in the Hodeidah assault by the UAE, is attempting to capture the well-defended city and push the Houthis out of their sole Red Sea port, in the biggest battle of the war.
Martin Griffiths, the U.N. special envoy to Yemen, arrived in the Houthi-held capital Sanaa as fears grew that the fighting will sever the only lifeline to the vast majority of Yemenis.
The battle for Hodeidah could have ramifications far beyond the densely-populated city of 600,000. Yemen’s conflict is part of a regional proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from Iran’s nuclear deal and his embrace of nuclear state North Korea have added to Tehran’s isolation and put pressure on the Islamic Republic to preserve its interests in Yemen and other Arab states.
Fighting closed off the city’s northern exit, blocking a key route east to Sanaa and making it harder to transport goods from Yemen’s biggest port to mountainous regions.
Houthis rule the most populous areas of chronically unstable Yemen, a poor nation of about 30 million people. More than 10,000 people have died in the war that began in 2015.
Aly Omar and his family spent three days trapped in the Manzar neighbourhood abutting the airport as fighting raged.
“We didn’t have any food, or drink or anything, not even water,” Omar said, standing in a hospital on Friday night beside his wounded son.
“I treated him on a bus after he was injured in an air strike … I call on the United Nations and the Red Cross to open a way for us to get out of the situation we’re in. Our kids, women and elderly are stuck.”
FEARS OF FAMINE
Aid groups are failing to cope in Yemen, where around 22 million people depend on humanitarian assistance and 8.4 million are at risk of starvation.
“Humanitarian agencies cannot currently access areas south of the city where people are most likely to have been injured, affected and displaced, leaving us without a clear picture of needs,” said the Norwegian Refugee Council’s office in Yemen.
The Arab alliance, which launched the operation in Hodeidah five days ago, said it can take the city quickly enough to avoid interrupting aid and would focus on capturing the airport and port and avoid street fighting.
Lise Grande, the United Nations humanitarian coordinator in Yemen, has warned that in a worst-case scenario, up to 250,000 lives are at risk.
Riyadh has accused the Houthis of using the port to smuggle Iranian-made weapons, including missiles used to target Saudi cities — accusations denied by the group and Tehran.
The alliance has superior weaponry, including fighter planes. The Houthis, resilient and highly experienced in mountain warfare, have advanced on sandal-shod feet and by pickup truck in battles across Yemen.
French special forces are on the ground in Yemen with the UAE forces, French newspaper Le Figaro reported on Saturday.
The coalition intervened in Yemen in 2015 to restore the internationally recognised government in exile and thwart what Riyadh and Abu Dhabi see as efforts by arch-foe Iran to dominate the region.
Even if the Houthis are defeated in Hodeidah, securing peace would be a messy, arduous process. The civil war is complicated by other parties, including loyalists of the late President Ali Abdullah Saleh, southern separatists and Al Qaeda.