Forces allied with the Saudi-led coalition have entered Hodeida airport as part of an assault to retake the port city. Fears are rising of a new humanitarian crisis if food imports, from the port, are disrupted.

Yemeni pro-government forces gather at the south of Hodeida airport

Soldiers from an Arab alliance seized the international airport in the Houthi-held port city of Hodeida on Saturday, officials loyal to Yemen’s exiled government said.

Aid workers and rights advocates said areas close to the airport remained the scene of intense fighting, which prevented thousands of people from leaving the Red Sea city, which has a population of 600,000.

Troops from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are leading ground forces in the latest assault to recapture the country’s main gateway for food shipments, which began on Wednesday.

Read more: Scores of migrants drown off Yemen coast

Watch video02:22

Saudi-led troops look to retake Yemeni port of Hodeida

Biggest battle yet

UAE troops are being bolstered by militiamen and soldiers backing Yemen’s exiled government, while Saudi Arabia is providing air support for what is being described as the biggest battle in the country’s three-year civil war.

The pro-alliance Yemeni military said that soldiers were working to clear mines and the last remaining rebels from land close to the airport, which is on the south side of the city.

Yemen’s Shiite rebels, the Houthis, who also hold the country’s capital of Sanaa, did not immediately acknowledge losing the airport.

So far, fighting has yet to enter Hodeida’s downtown or its crucial port.

Humanitarian crisis

The Arab coalition has ignored advice from international aid groups, who say Yemen is already on the brink of famine and any shutdown of Hodeida’s port could risk tipping millions of civilians into starvation.

Some 70 percent of Yemen’s food enters via the port, as well as the bulk of humanitarian aid and fuel supplies, which around two-thirds of the country’s 27 million population depends on.

Read more: Yemen rebels hit Saudi tanker in Red Sea, Saudi Arabia claims

Watch video02:01

Calls for restraint as key Yemeni port attacked

Saudi Arabia, which leads the Arab coalition to restore the internationally recognized Yemeni government, defended its decision to launch the assault.

It said the port was continuing to provide millions of dollars in duties for the Houthis, who they claim were also importing weapons through the facility.

The Saudi-led alliance says it can swiftly capture the port, the only one the Houthis control, without major disruption to aid supplies.

Later on Saturday, the United Nations envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, arrived in the rebel-held capital Sanaa for talks on the conflict in Hodeida, the Agence France-Presse news agency reported.

He was expected to call for Houthi leaders to cede control of the port to a UN-supervised committee, and to avoid further fighting between rebels and the Arab coalition.

More than 10,000 people have been killed during Yemen’s civil war. The Saudi-led alliance intervened in 2015 to thwart what many countries in the Middle East see as efforts by their archfoe, Iran, to dominate the region.

Western nations say Tehran has supplied the Houthis with weapons, from assault rifles to the ballistic missiles they have fired deep into Saudi Arabia, including at the capital, Riyadh.

mm/jlw (AP, Reuters)

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