The UN envoy for Yemen has arrived in Sanaa for crisis talks on the port city of Hudaida amid growing fears that fighting between a Saudi and Emirati-led coalition and Houthi rebels will exacerbate a humanitarian crisis.
Martin Griffiths did not make any statement as he landed in the Yemeni capital on Saturday.
He is expected to propose to rebel leaders that they halt fighting and cede control of Hudaida’s vital port – responsible for more than 70 percent of Yemeni imports – to a UN-supervised committee.
Griffiths’s arrival came as fighting intensified around Hudaida’s airport amid conflicting claims over its fate.
In a post on Twitter Saturday, an account associated with the Saudi-aligned Yemeni army said the airport had been “freed from the grip of the Houthi militia” and that de-mining operations were ongoing.
But later on Saturday, Houthi-linked civil aviation authorities denied the rebels had lost control over the airport.
The Houthis’ official news agency SABA quoted Mohammed al-Sharif, deputy head of civil aviation, as saying that images circulated online about the airport were taken in 2016 and that a fence shown as the airport fence was in fact situated on a piece of land belonging to a lawmaker.
Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdul-Salam also said Saudi-led forces had not entered the airport and warned the assault on the city would undermine chances for a peaceful settlement.
“A battle of attrition awaits the Saudi alliance which it cannot withstand. The Saudi coalition will not win the battle in Hudaidah,” he told Lebanon-based al-Mayadeen TV.
Saudi and Emirati-backed forces began an offensive to capture Hudaida on Wednesday, since when scores of combatants have been killed, according to medical and military sources
Houthi forces captured the city of about 600,000 people in late 2014.
The recent escalation in fighting has raised fears the clashes could ignite a humanitarian catastrophe in a country already teetering on the brink of famine.
More than 22 million people in Yemen are in need of aid, including 8.4 million who are at risk of starvation, according to the UN, which considers Yemen to be the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
The UN Security Council has expressed its “deep concern” over the fighting and UN officials have warned of a risk of famine.
“The Yemeni port (of Hudaida) is a lifeline for the delivery of aid and the Coalition’s air attacks can kill many more people over time through famine and hunger when damaging such civilian infrastructure,” Adana Dieng, UN special adviser on the Prevention of Genocide,said in a statement.
Sama’a al-Hamdani, an analyst at the Sanaa Centre for Strategic Studies, said the Houthis have an incentive to agree to Griffiths’ likely proposal because they are being “choked up”.
“If they go on on with this war they can completely fight to the death and probably lose because they don’t have the resources that the UAE and Saudi Arabia have,” she told Al Jazeera from Washington, DC, adding that such a scenario would be “really detrimental to the civilians”.
But the Saudi-led coalition might be less inclined to give consent to the plan, al-Hamdani said.
“Their reputation is on the line … They want to come in and fight this and have a clear victory.”
The wae between the Houthi rebels and the backers of Yemen’s government has raged for more than three years. More than 10,000 Yemenis have been killed by the fighting and millions have been displaced.