ADEN (Reuters) – Arab coalition troops stormed the airport in Yemen’s main port Hodeidah on Tuesday and captured large areas of the compound in battles with Iran-aligned Houthis, a Yemeni military source, the UAE news agency and local residents said.
Wresting the airport from the Houthis would be an important gain for the coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which pledged a swift assault on the city to avoid disrupting aid deliveries to Yemen through the port.
The Western-backed alliance launched the onslaught on Hodeidah on June 12 to try and turn the tables in a long-stalemated proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran that has exacerbated turmoil across the Middle East.
“They have stormed the airport,” an anti-Houthi Yemeni military source told Reuters.
“This is the first time we hear the clashes so clearly. We can hear the sound of artillery and machinegun fire,” said a resident who requested anonymity. Warplanes had bombarded the airport earlier in the morning, the resident added.
The UAE state news agency WAM said large swathes of the airport compound had been taken by coalition forces.
The escalation in fighting has wounded and displaced dozens of civilians and hampered humanitarian agencies trying to send vital aid to millions of Yemenis via the Red Sea port.
Tuesday’s battles spread panic among local inhabitants.
“My children are terrified. The fighting and the sounds of explosions are everywhere and we are stuck in our house in the district of Rabsa with no running water,” Iman, a 37-year-old mother of two, said tearfully.
“What have we done for all of this?”
Mohamed Sharaf, 44, a civil servant, said he had sent his entire family to Sanaa, the inland capital, several days ago and he was getting ready to leave himself. “There is death and destruction everywhere in this city,” he said.
The United Nations fears the offensive will worsen what is already the world’s most urgent humanitarian crisis, with 22 million Yemenis dependent on aid, and an estimated 8.4 million believed to be on the verge of starvation.
U.N. officials estimate that 600,000 people live in and around Hodeidah and that in a worst-case scenario the battles could cost up to 250,000 lives.
Hodeidah port remained open on Tuesday with the U.N. World Food Programme racing to unload three ships containing enough food for six million people for one month, WFP spokeswoman Bettina Luescher told reporters in Geneva.
UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash said on Monday the coalition was taking a measured approach to minimize risks to civilians, and allowing the Houthis an escape route inland to their bastion in the capital Sanaa.
The Arab states say their aim is to seize the airport and port quickly and to avoid street battles in the city center. But Hodeidah is well defended as it constitutes the key supply line to Houthi-controlled territory including Sanaa.
Gargash said the coalition was counting on Martin Griffiths, the U.N. special envoy for Yemen who arrived in Sanaa on Saturday, to broker a Houthi agreement to leave Hodeidah.
But Griffiths departed Sanaa on Tuesday without comment, witnesses said, leaving unclear whether any headway was made.
A member of the Houthis’ ruling politburo, Mohammed al-Bukhaiti, denied the talks with Griffiths had focused on handing over Hodeidah “because this request is unrealistic”.
“During all his visits, the envoy has discussed a comprehensive political solution that addresses…all fronts and not only Hodeidah,” he told Reuters by telephone.
The coalition intervened in Yemen’s war in 2015 to try and unseat the Houthis, restore the internationally recognized Yemeni government in exile and thwart what Riyadh and Abu Dhabi see as Iran’s expansionism in the region.
The Houthis, who control most of the populated areas in the chronically unstable nation of 30 million people, deny the Arab states’ assertions that they are puppets of Iran. They say they reflect a popular revolt against state corruption and are protecting Yemen from foreign invasion.
Taking Hodeidah could hand a long-sought edge to the Arab alliance which, despite superior weaponry and firepower, has failed to defeat the Houthis in a grinding war that has killed more than 10,000 people.