SANAA, Yemen – A Saudi-led coalition and Yemeni fighters backing the country’s government were on the verge of seizing control of the airport of a vital rebel-held port as fighting intensified Friday, with pro-government forces within yards of the airport gates.
The death toll climbed to at least 280 on the third day of the campaign aimed at driving out the Iranian-backed Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, from the Red Sea port of Hodeida that is the main entry point for food and aid supplies in a country teetering on the brink of famine.
The Saudi-Emirati coalition bombed Houthi positions while rebels said in a statement that they fired a ballistic missile at pro-government forces, but gave no report of causalities.
The fighting comes at a time when Muslims around the world are celebrating the Eid al-Fitr holiday at the end of the holy month of Ramadan. But in Hodeida, people were stockpiling what little food they could for fear of an imminent siege and streets were empty except for beggars and fighters.
Yemeni officials said dozens of pro-government fighters have been killed since the assault began Wednesday, mainly from land mines and roadside bombs disguised as rocks or sacks of wheat. On the rebel side, bodies of Houthi fighters were strewn across the front lines.
Ahmed al-Kawkabani, a Yemeni who leads a pro-government militia known as the Tohama Brigade, told The Associated Press that his forces were positioned in Dawar al-Hodeida, just 1.2 miles from the airport. Another Yemeni commander, Abu Zarah al-Mahrami, was quoted by Dubai-based Al-Arabiya TV network as saying that pro-government forces were “within meters” of the airport.
Military officials said preparations were under way for a final push to take the airport and that the ground battles had largely subsided by sunset Friday. They said the assault on the airport would start at dawn on Saturday.
Military commanders said the operation would be complicated because the aim is to protect airport facilities, buildings and nearby fighter jets. The Houthis will depend on snipers and land mines to slow down the multi-pronged advance.
Aid workers have warned the assault on Hodieda’s port, known as the “mouth of Yemen,” could shut down the vital route for some 70 percent of Yemen’s food and humanitarian aid. Two-thirds of Yemen’s population of 27 million relies on aid and 8.4 million are already at risk of starving.
The Saudi-led coalition accuses the Houthis of using the port to smuggle weapons and missiles from Iran. The rebels have been raining ballistic missiles down on Saudi cities from across the border. The port is also a lucrative source of revenue for the Houthis, who have controlled most of northern Yemen since 2014.
The United Arab Emirates’ minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, said that the battle over Hodeida is essential to break a stalemate in the civil war, which otherwise could drag on for years.
Seizing the port “means that the Houthis will no longer be able to impose their will at the barrel of a gun,” he said in a post on Twitter. “If they keep Hodeida and its revenues and its strategic location, the war will last a long time and (add to) the suffering of the Yemeni people.”
Hodeida, home to nearly 600,000 people, is some 90 miles southwest of Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, which is under Houthi control.
The Saudi-led coalition has imposed an air, sea, and land embargo on Yemen since March 2015, aiming to dislodge the Houthis from the territory they control, paralyzing trade and access to the country. The coalition air campaign and Houthi bombardment have left more than 10,000 people dead and 2 million displaced, and devastated the country’s already fragile infrastructure, including the health sector, which has helped spawn a cholera epidemic.
In a series of tweets, the International Committee of the Red Cross said the people in Hodeida were “bracing for the worst,” and tens of thousands were expected to flee in the coming days, some for a second time.
“People live in slums in the outskirts surviving on bread crumbs they find in the garbage. With the little money they do have, they buy cooking oil in plastic bags – just enough to cook 1 meal a day,” the group said, citing the accounts of staffers.
Meanwhile, the U.S., which has backed the Saudi-led coalition with intelligence, logistical support and aerial refueling of fighter jets, has not publicly opposed the assault but has urged the coalition to ensure that humanitarian aid deliveries to the port continue.
Washington however rejected three requests by the UAE to increase its support to the coalition with logistics, intelligence, and mine-sweeping operations.
Marine Maj. Adrian Rankine Galloway, a Pentagon spokesman, said the U.S. has continued to provide aerial refueling for coalition aircraft and intelligence assistance. That aid includes information on key civilian sites that should not be targeted in order to avoid civilian casualties.
“We are not directly supporting the coalition offensive on the port of Hodeida,” Rankine-Galloway said. “The United States does not command, accompany or participate in counter-Houthi operations or any hostilities other than those authorized” against al-Qaida and Islamic State militants in Yemen.
The request for mine sweepers was diverted to France, which said it was considering minesweeping in Hodeida after the end of military operations there.
“Its purpose would be to facilitate the safe transport of humanitarian aid to the city’s population,” the French Defense Ministry said in a statement.
The rebels have planted thousands of land mines and roadside bombs on the outskirts of the airport that have killed dozens of coalition-backed fighters, Yemeni officials said.
“Nearly 95 percent of the causalities are because of land mines and roadside bombs,” said a medical official, who like the others spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak to the press. He shared pictures of land mines and roadside bombs that were disguised as rocks and sacks of wheat.
The Conflict Armament Research Center said earlier that the bombs are similar to those used by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah in southern Lebanon and by insurgents in Iraq and Bahrain.
Human Rights Watch urged the U.N. Security Council on Friday to warn the warring parties that they will face sanctions if they fail to provide civilians access to desperately needed aid.
“The coalition and Houthi forces, now fighting for Hodeida, have atrocious records abiding by the laws of war,” said HRW’s Sarah Leah Whitson.
In the face of international concerns over the humanitarian situation, the UAE said on Friday that it would begin sending aid by air and sea to Hodeida, the state-run WAM news agency said. At least 10 UAE ships carrying 13,500 tons of food and aid, as well as three flights, were planned for Hodeida, it said.
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