Saudi-backed government forces in Yemen launched a series of attacks on rebel-held Hodeidah, military officials said yesterday, raising fears of a humanitarian crisis as an 11-week pause in the battle for the port city ended.
The Houthi rebels accused the government and its Saudi-led allies of deliberately targeting food warehouses on Monday night, as the coalition said it had resumed a “military operation to liberate Hodeidah and its port”. Pro-government forces and medical sources in Hodeidah province said that 40 Huthis had been killed around the port city since Monday night.
The fight for Hodeidah, which the Huthis seized in 2014, was put on hold for 11 weeks as the United Nations struggled to bring warring parties to peace talks in Geneva.
But the talks collapsed earlier this month after the northern Yemeni rebels refused to attend.
The Red Sea port of Hodeidah is a vital lifeline for aid shipments to Yemen.
The United Nations has warned that any major fighting could halt the distribution of food to 8mn Yemenis dependent on the supplies to survive.
Brigadier General Ali al-Taniji, commander of coalition forces on Yemen’s west coast, confirmed the alliance had launched an operation in Hodeidah, in a statement to state media in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia’s main partner in the coalition.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a senior coalition official said the operation was being fought on multiple fronts.
Residents in and around the city, home to 600,000 people, reported hearing explosions throughout Monday night.
The Houthis accused the coalition of targeting food supply warehouses in the raids, claiming the international community was complicit in the attacks.
“International food supply warehouses were targeted in Hodeidah, a clear sign that there is a plan...to make warehouses and densely populated neighbourhoods legitimate targets of their terrorist operations,” said the head of the rebels’ Supreme Revolutionary Council, Mohamed Ali al-Houthi.
“International tolerance of terrorism has only encouraged (the coalition) to plan and deliberately commit crimes,” Houthi said.
A spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition did not respond to a request for comment, while a World Food Programme spokeswoman declined to say whether the UN agency’s facilities had been hit.
Saudi Arabia and its allies accuse the Houthis of smuggling arms from Iran through Hodeidah, a charge the rebels and Tehran deny, and they have imposed a partial blockade on the port.
UN envoy Martin Griffiths left the Yemeni capital Sanaa yesterday, ending a three-day trip.
Progress was made to resume consultations and confidence-building measures, including the reopening of Sanaa airport to commercial flights and the release of prisoners, the envoy’s office said in a statement.
The UN envoy will be heading to Riyadh today.
Griffiths is pushing for new peace negotiations after the Geneva talks failed to get off the ground, with the Huthis saying they had not received guarantees for their safe return home afterwards. The United Nations on Monday announced it was working to open a humanitarian air bridge to transport Yemeni cancer patients abroad for treatment.
The Houthis said plans to fly patients out of Sanaa yesterday had been foiled by the coalition, accusing it of failing to co-operate.
World Health Organisation spokeswoman Fadela Chaib said there was “no date set for the first flight” pending “final approval from all parties”. While the rebels control the capital, Saudi Arabia and its allies control Yemen’s airspace and have put Sanaa’s international airport under blockade.
In wheelchairs and carrying sick babies, Yemenis in the rebel-held capital lined up yesterday outside the health ministry as rumours of the impending flight spread.
Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak, Yemen’s ambassador to the UN, said his government was willing to “do whatever it takes to alleviate the suffering and pain of Yemenis”, in a letter to Secretary General Antonio Guterres.
But he asked that the UN and all its branches not sign agreements “except with the legitimate, internationally recognised government of Yemen”.
Saudi Arabia and its allies launched a major operation to retake Hodeidah in June before announcing the pause for peace talks.
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