Rebel leader Abdul Malik al-Houthi called for reinforcements to repel the advance of the Saudi and UAE-backed government forces, after ongoing fighting left nearly 350 people dead.
“We will face all of the incursions on the ground. Our determination will never be dented,” he said via the rebels’ Al-Masirah news outlet.
The airport was disused but it housed a major rebel base just inland from the coastal road into the city from the south.
Fresh clashes later erupted between UAE-backed government forces and the Iran-allied rebels on a road linking the airport to Hudaida port on the Red Sea coast, a Yemeni army source said.
Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi said military “operations will continue on various fronts until (the capital) Sanaa and the whole territory” are retaken from the rebels.
On June 13, Yemen’s army and its allies launched their offensive to clear Hudaida of rebel fighters who have held it since 2014, raising UN concerns for vital aid shipments and food imports through the city’s docks.
The coalition has long accused Iran of smuggling weapons into Yemen through the seaport – accusations that are rejected by the Houthis and Tehran.
UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash said the “liberation of Hudaida is the beginning to ending the war.
“The choice in Yemen is between the state and militia, between order and violence, between peace and war,” he wrote on Twitter, referring to Houthi militiamen.
Three-quarters of Yemen’s imports pass through the port, providing a lifeline for some 22 million people in need of aid.
The United Nations has described Yemen as the world’s gravest humanitarian crisis and warned any attack on Hudaida port could cripple aid shipments.
The Norwegian Refugee Council said the fighting had already hit water supplies, putting people at high risk of contamination.
As of 19 June, the water supply has been disrupted in several areas and people are reportedly relying on water from mosque wells. Access to adequate and safe water is now a major concern, particularly in light of the ongoing cholera emergency.
Hudaida’s residents are bracing for what they fear will be devastating street fighting, as tanks and buses carrying uniformed troops roll through the empty streets of the once-bustling city.
Some 5,200 families fled their homes this month as pro-government forces advanced up the Red Sea coast, according to the UN.
The Hudaida offensive, dubbed Operation Golden Victory, is the most intense battlefront in the already-brutal Yemen war which has left millions displaced.
The war in Yemen, the region’s poorest country, started in 2014 after Houthi rebels seized control of the capital and began pushing south towards the country’s third-biggest city Aden.
Concerned by the rise of the Houthi rebels, Saudi Arabia and a coalition of Arab states launched a military offensive in 2015 in the form of a massive air campaign aimed at reinstalling the government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
Since then, more than 10,000 people have been killed and at least 40,000 wounded, mostly from Saudi-led air strikes.
In retaliation, the Houthis have launched dozens of missiles at the kingdom.
Saudi authorities say over the past three years 90 ballistic missiles were fired by the rebels.
Multiple rounds of UN-brokered peace talks have all failed to achieve any breakthrough.