Fighting in the Yemeni city of Hodeidah appears to have eased slightly, according to reports, in a possible sign of de-escalation between the Saudi-UAE coalition and the Houthi rebels in control of key parts of the strategic port city.
The apparent lull in hostilities late on Monday came hours after military sources told news agencies at least 149 Yemenis, including seven civilians, were killed in the past 24 hours in fierce fighting as forces loyal to exiled President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi closed in on areas held by Houthis.
Medics in hospitals across the city – which is the main gateway for imports and relief supplies into Yemen – said 110 Houthi fighters and 32 pro-government soldiers had been killed in overnight fighting.
Meanwhile, a military official in Hodeidah told the AFP news agency that seven civilians had died in clashes without giving further details.
Sources at the al-Alfi military hospital, seized by the Houthis during their 2014 takeover of the city, said charred body parts had been delivered there overnight.
Later on Monday, Reuters news agency cited civilians as saying that air raids against Houthi fortifications had halted and street battles, which had been raging for a week on the outskirts of the Red Sea city, trapping civilians and endangering hospitals, died down.
However, according to coalition spokesperson Colonel Turki al-Malki, the offensive on the Houthi-held city was still on.
“The operation is still ongoing. It’s not true that there is a ceasefire in Hodeidah,” Malki told reporters in the Saudi capital, Riyadh.
Al Jazeera’s Mohammed Adow, reporting from neighbouring Djibouti, said there was growing concern about the wellbeing of civilians trapped in the eastern and southern areas of Hodeidah city.
“Some of the fighting is on the streets of residential areas, something that is causing concern about the safety and welfare of the people still holed up in the city,” Adow said.
“There are people stuck there who could not find ways of leaving because of the blocked roads and many checkpoints set up by Houthi fighters,” he added.
Calls for ceasefire
The easing off of fighting was welcomed by UN officials, who have called to end the war which has killed more than 56,000 people according to a recent estimate.
“It seems that the shelling and the strafing and the bombing has stopped. Now, we’re not sure about the implications of this, but it is very welcome indeed,” UN humanitarian coordinator in Yemen, Lise Grande told BBC radio according to Reuters.
Despite a relatively quiet moment in the battle for Hodeidah, the future of the war in Yemen remains uncertain as new talks between the warring parties were pushed back to late December after they were scheduled to take place in Sweden in November.
A number of countries have recently called on for a cessation of hostilities between the Saudi-UAE-led coalition and the Houthi rebels.
Among them are the United States, Britain and France, three countries that provide the coalition with military equipment, intelligence and logistics.
“It’s a dirty war,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.
“The international community needs to say that’s enough. That’s what the US says, we’re saying and the British too,” Le Drian added.
Bessma Momani, a professor of political science at Canada’s University of Waterloo, said the Saudi-UAE military alliance was trying to take control of Hodeidah ahead of the summit.
“I think that’s the strategy overall, but of course it comes at an enormous cost for civilians,” Momani told Al Jazeera.
“It’s important to point out, 80 percent of all food come through Hodeidah – it is food scarcity and famine that we should be worried about because this is the cost that will be paid by the average civilian for the retaking of Hodeidah.”
On Monday, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that the destruction of the vital Yemeni port could trigger a “catastrophic” situation.
“If the port at Hodeidah is destroyed, that could create an absolutely catastrophic situation,” Guterres told France Info radio during a trip to Paris.
Hodeidah, a large city on Yemen’s Red Sea coast, is the latest battleground between Houthi rebels and the Saudi-UAE alliance which has been fighting for control over the country for the past three and a half years.
Since November 1, there have been more than 200 air attacks reported in the city, with AFP reporting nearly 600 deaths.
Aid agencies have long warned that fighting in Hodeidah risks escalating the country’s dire humanitarian crisis.
‘Enormous cost for civilians’
Momani noted that in the wake of last month’s killing of Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, elements within the US may press for sanctions on weapons sales to the kingdom.
“Now that we have seen the Democrats take over the House of Representatives [in the US midterm elections], one part of the legislature, we are going to see a lot of ugly facts against this war – logistics, intelligence, training – you name it,” she said.
“We have to find a way to solve this because really the Yemeni people have suffered far too much.”
The conflict in Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country, began when the government slashed fuel subsidies in the summer of 2014, prompting angry protests and forcing thousands onto the capital’s streets.
The Houthis seized the opportunity and marched south from their stronghold of Saada province to the capital, Sanaa, where they toppled Hadi’s government.
Concerned by the rise of the Houthis, a US-backed Saudi-UAE military coalition intervened in 2015 with a massive air campaign aimed at reinstalling Hadi’s government.
Since then, data collected by Al Jazeera and the Yemen Data Project has found that more than 18,000 air attacks have been carried out in Yemen, with almost one-third of all bombing missions striking non-military sites.
Weddings, funerals, schools and hospitals, as well as water and electricity plants, have been targeted, killing and wounding thousands.