Yemeni government forces are closing in on the rebel-held port of Hodeida, the war-ravaged country’s main conduit for humanitarian aid, the Saudi-led coalition has said, prompting the defiant militants to call for a “mass mobilisation” to thwart any offensive.
The Red Sea port is a key point of contention since the coalition intervened on behalf of the government in 2015 against Iran-allied Huthi rebels.
Hodeida is Yemen’s largest entry point for aid on which millions depend, as the country teeters on the brink of famine.
But for the coalition, it is seen as the entry point for rebel weaponry, including ballistic missiles, which it accuses regional rival Iran of supplying although Tehran denies the claims.
“The Yemeni army backed by the coalition is around 20 kilometres (12 miles) outside Hodeida and military operations are ongoing,” coalition spokesman Turki al-Maliki said late Monday.
Speaking in the Saudi capital Riyadh, Maliki insisted the coalition’s goal was to “cut the vein that the Huthis are benefiting from”, while claiming a steady “collapse” of rebel positions.
His comments were met with defiance from Hamoud Abbad, the Huthi-appointed governor of capital Sanaa, who called for “mass mobilisation” to defend the western front.
At a ceremony late Monday to commemorate the killing of a rebel leader in a Saudi air strike in April, Abbad called on tribesmen near Hodeida to “feel their religious and patriotic duty to protect their homeland”.
On Sunday, rebel chief Abdul Malik al-Huthi said in a televised address that the Huthis were ready to thwart any military operation by the coalition on Hodeida.
‘Conflict enters new phase’
The United Nations has warned that any operation aimed at seizing Hodeida itself would disrupt the entry of aid shipments to Yemen, 70 percent of which flow through the rebel-held port.
“The key question isn’t whether the coalition can take Hodeida,” tweeted Gerald Feierstein, a former US ambassador to Yemen and a director at the Middle East Institute.
“It’s what they intend to do next. Can they use control of the port to ensure humanitarian supplies can get in unimpeded?”
In November 2017, the coalition announced a total blockade on Hodeida in response to a rebel ballistic missile attack that targeted Riyadh.
That embargo was eased under international pressure, but the coalition has meanwhile set its sights on retaking Hodeida by land — especially as rebel missile attacks have increased.
The United Arab Emirates, a key coalition member, has taken the initiative to ramp up the coastal offensive, leading a disparate collective of forces with the stated goal of taking Hodeida.
The forces include the “Giant Brigades” — a former elite unit of the Yemeni army rebuilt by the UAE — which has been at the vanguard of the offensive, reinforced by thousands of fighters from southern Yemen.
The second key force, the “National Resistance”, are loyalists of Yemen’s ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was assassinated by his former Huthi allies in December. The force is commanded by his nephew Tarek Saleh.
The third force, the “Tihama Resistance”, is named for the Red Sea coastal region and made up of locals from the area loyal to Yemen’s exiled president, Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi.
The fighting in western Yemen has been fierce, slowed by landmines that Yemeni military sources say have been laid by the insurgents.
“With the battle for Hodeida, the conflict enters a new phase, but likely not an endgame,” Peter Salisbury, a fellow at the think tank Chatham House, said on Twitter.
“The question for me is how long the battle for Hodeida will last and how much damage will be done to the most important port in the country. If fight runs into weeks/months and is extremely destructive… that’s very bad news for ordinary Yemenis.”
Nearly 10,000 people have been killed since the Saudi-led alliance launched its intervention in Yemen in March 2015.
In addition, more than 2,200 others have died from cholera and millions are on the verge of famine in what the United Nations says is the world’s gravest humanitarian crisis.