The campaign to drive rebels from Yemen’s main port city of Hodeidah will not be stopped again until it is captured from the Houthis, a militia commander said.
Aidarous al-Zubaidi’s remarks on Thursday came as his 20,000 fighters amassed near Hodeidah, providing the major ground force led by the United Arab Emirates, which is trying to capture the main gateway for imports of relief supplies and commercial goods.
The Houthis have held the strategic city since 2014.
UAE-led troops launched a major offensive in Hodeidah in June, but suspended it after several weeks when UN-sponsored peace talks between the internationally recognised government and Houthi rebels began talks.
On Wednesday, Zubaidi’s Giants Brigade said it was reinforcing its lines in Hodeidah, sending more men, armoured vehicles and heavy artillery.
The escalation has raised international alarm because of the threat to civilians, both from fighting in the city and from potential disruption to crucial supply lines to more than eight million desperate Yemenis.
“The civilian lives are very precious and all the coalition’s operations in the air and sea are taking into consideration the civilian casualties, but the military operation has begun and there will be no going back,” Zubaidi told the Reuters news agency in an interview in the UAE capital, Abu Dhabi.
“In all the wars across the world, there is always humanitarian suffering. But we are looking beyond the liberation of Hodeidah, which will be in the interests of the city’s population.
“The battle of Hodeidah is continuing and the war is not over.”
Zubaidi’s soldiers – who want a separate country in the south – have occasionally fought alongside forces loyal to President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who was driven out of the capital, Sanaa, in 2014 and now heads a government based in the southern port city of Aden.
Hadi lives in exile in Riyadh and has a close relationship with Saudi Arabia, while Zubaidi’s UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council maintains its headquarters in Abu Dhabi.
The UAE has been financing and training armed groups in the south of the country who answer to Zubaidi, a 50-year-old militia leader who emerged from relative obscurity in late 2015 after helping purge the Houthis from Aden.
The UAE entered Yemen’s war in March 2015 as part of a Saudi-led coalition after Houthi rebels, traditionally based in the northwest of the country, overran much of the country, including Sanaa in 2014.
Nearly three years on, Saudi Arabia has said it “wants out” of the war, but the UAE has become more involved in the conflict, indicating a divide in the two countries’ agendas.
The coalition has so far failed to achieve its stated aims as Houthi rebels continue to hold Sanaa and much of the north.