ADEN (Reuters) – Fears of a humanitarian crisis in Yemen’s main port city Hodeidah grew as battles spilled into residential districts on Wednesday after Arab coalition forces seized the airport from the Iran-aligned Houthis.
Residents said coalition aircraft were bombing Houthi positions on roads leading to the airport as the group dug in against an onslaught by the Arab alliance to take the city, the Houthis’ main port and the lifeline for millions of Yemenis.
Coalition spokesman Colonel Turki al-Malki told Al Arabiya television in Brussels that the alliance was now destroying Houthi fortifications near the airport and he accused the group of placing tanks inside residential areas.
“We have been stuck in our houses for five days because we are afraid of going out due to the fighting. Our food supplies will run out within a week and there is no water,” Fatima, 56, said, adding that bottled water was very expensive.
The escalation in fighting has wounded civilians, forced many to flee their homes and hampered humanitarian agencies, which are concerned about a potential cholera outbreak in the densely populated city as fighting cuts off water supplies.
“People are saying water has been disrupted in parts of Hodeidah already. Some areas even prior to the war were not even connected to the main water supply,” said Saleem Al Shamiri, livelihood coordinator at the Norwegian Refugee Council.
“We’ve done some initiatives…to educate people about safe water use as temperatures are rising,” he told Reuters.
He said that while many residents had fled the city, most people in Hodeidah do not have the financial means to leave.
U.N. officials estimate that in a worst-case scenario the fighting could cost up to 250,000 lives, especially if a cholera epidemic occurs in the widely impoverished region.
The coalition, led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, intervened in Yemen’s war in 2015 to try to roll back Houthi rebels’ lightning capture of the main population centres and reinstate the internationally recognised government.
The Arab alliance also seeks to thwart what Riyadh and Abu Dhabi see as Iranian expansionism in the region. The Houthis deny being puppets of Iran and say their movement reflects a popular revolt against state corruption and foreign meddling.
The coalition launched its offensive on heavily defended Hodeidah a week ago and pledged a swift operation to minimise civilian casualties and avoid disrupting vital aid to millions of Yemenis via the Red Sea port.
“Hodeidah port is operating as normal and the movement of ships is normal,” Malki said. “We have humanitarian and development plans for when we liberate the city.”
The U.N. World Food Programme said on Tuesday it was hastening to unload three ships at the port that contain enough food for six million people for one month.
Though the coalition pledged to try to avoid battles in densely populated urban neighbourhoods, the Houthis were well dug into Hodeidah as it constitutes the key supply line to territory they control, including the capital, Sanaa.
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.
The United States and other Western powers provide arms and intelligence to the Arab alliance and human rights groups have criticised them over air strikes which have led to hundreds of civilian deaths during the war.
Saudi Arabia accuses the Houthis of using Hodeidah port to smuggle Iranian-made weapons, including missiles targeting Saudi cities. The group and Tehran deny the accusation.