Thousands of Yemeni civilians are trapped on the southern outskirts of the Red Sea port of Hodeidah as forces backed by a Saudi-led coalition battle Houthi fighters entrenched in the city, aid groups said.
The alliance has massed thousands of Yemeni troops in recent days near the heavily defended port despite recent calls from international leaders for an end to the country’s ongoing conflict, which has unleashed the world’s “worst humanitarian crisis”.
Rebels and government officials reported intense battles on Monday near the western port city, according to AFP news agency.
“All the people living between the airport and the university are trapped, the last four days have been very tough, it is beyond catastrophic levels,” Isaac Ooko, Hodeidah area manager for the Norwegian Refugee Council, told Reuters news agency.
“Air strikes have been very intense and the hovering of the jets causes permanent anxiety … Hodeidah has become a ghost city, people stay indoors and the streets are deserted.”
Yemeni military officials told AFP that government forces backed by the US-supported Saudi-UAE military coalition advanced on Houthi-held Hodeidah and positioned themselves around both the north and south of the city in a bid to surround it and block a major rebel supply route.
The officials said the coalition sent fighter jets and Apache attack helicopters on Monday morning to back up ground troops.
The head of the Houthis’ revolutionary council, Mohammed Ali al-Huthi, reported a “military escalation by the coalition” and slammed the operation as “a strenuous attempt to block talks aimed at ending the war and finding peace”.
A source in the Saudi-UAE alliance told AFP the clashes were not “offensive operations”, adding that the alliance was “committed to keeping the Hodeidah port open”.
According to local medical officials cited by AFP, at least 74 rebels and 15 pro-government troops were killed during fighting in the past 24 hours.
The conflict in Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country and home to an estimated 28 million people, began with the 2014 takeover of the capital, Sanaa, by Houthi rebels, who toppled the internationally recognised government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
Concerned by the rise of the Houthis, believed to be backed by Iran, a US-backed Saudi-UAE military coalition launched an intervention in 2015 in the form of a massive air campaign aimed at reinstalling Hadi’s government.
According to the UN, at least 10,000 people have been killed since the coalition entered the conflict. The death toll has not been updated in years, however, and is likely to be far higher.
Last week, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres demanded an “immediate” halt to the fighting, warning that the country stands on a “precipice” and could face the world’s “worst famine” for decades if violence continues unabated.
About 22 million Yemenis are in need of humanitarian assistance, according to the UN.
Monday’s battles, meanwhile, took place after the Saudi-UAE coalition sent more than 10,000 new troops towards Hodeidah last week as part of a planned new offensive aimed at securing “areas liberated” from the Houthis, according to Yemeni government officials.
The move came after an earlier suspension of a coalition assault on the city, put in place on account of planned peace talks between Yemen’s warring factions, which were due to be held in September in Geneva.
The summit failed to materialise when Houthi representatives refused to attend, saying the UN had failed to meet the group’s pre-summit demands.
The UN’s special envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, is hoping to restart peace efforts at a summit in Sweden later this month.
On Monday, a Saudi-UAE coalition official told AFP the alliance was “committed to de-escalating hostilities in Yemen and strongly supportive of the UN envoy’s political process”.
“[But] if the Houthis fail to show up for peace talks again, this might lead [us] to restart the offensive operation in Hodeidah,” the official said.
UK-based charity Save the Children described the situation in and around Hodeidah, the current epicentre of Yemen’s conflict, as “deeply concerning”.
“This serious escalation around Yemen’s most important port city could put tens of thousands of children in the line of fire and further choke delivery of food and medicine,” Tamer Kirolos, the organisation’s Yemen director, said in a statement on Monday.
Hodeidah is the only port held by the Houthis and serves as the entry point for the bulk of Yemen’s commercial imports and aid supplies.
The Saudi-UAE coalition has imposed a blockade on the port, however, allegedly as part of efforts to prevent the Houthis from using it as a landing point for weapons supplied by Iran.
Both Tehran and the rebels deny the port is being used to smuggle arms from Iran into Yemen.