ADEN: A Saudi-led alliance of Arab states launched an attack on Yemen’s main port city on Wednesday in the largest battle of the war, aiming to bring the ruling Houthi movement to its knees at the risk of worsening the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis.
Arab warplanes and warships pounded Houthi fortifications to support ground operations by foreign and Yemeni troops massed south of the port of Hodeidah in operation “Golden Victory”.
Fighting raged near Hodeidah airport and al-Durayhmi, a rural area 10km south of the city, media controlled by the Arab states and their Yemeni allies reported.
The assault marks the first time the Arab states have tried to capture such a heavily-defended major city since joining the war three years ago against the Iran-aligned Houthis, who control the capital Sanaa and most of the populated areas.
The United Nations says 8.4 million Yemenis are on the verge of famine, and for most the port is the only route for food supplies.
The Houthis deployed military vehicles and troops in the city centre and near the port, as warplanes struck the coast to the south, a resident said. People fled by routes to the north and west.
Residents emerged from homes in the late afternoon to shop for food before the breaking of the Ramazan fast, he said.
The UN’s special envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, said the world body was talking to both sides to try to avert a battle.
“We call on them to exercise restraint & engage with political efforts to spare Hodeidah a military confrontation,” he tweeted.
The Arab states say they will try to keep the port running and can ease the crisis once they seize it by lifting import restrictions they have imposed.
Western countries have quietly backed the Arab states diplomatically, while mostly avoiding direct public involvement in the conflict.
A major battle could test that support, especially if many civilians are killed or supplies disrupted.
The operation began after a three-day deadline set by the United Arab Emirates for the Houthis to quit the port.
A Yemeni anti-Houthi military official said the alliance had brought to bear a 21,000-strong force. It includes Emirati and Sudanese troops as well as Yemenis, drawn from southern separatists, local Red Sea coast fighters and a battalion led by a nephew of late ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Houthi leader Mohammed Ali Al-Houthi, who has threatened attacks on tankers entering the Red Sea, warned the alliance not to attack and said on Twitter his forces had struck a coalition barge. There was no immediate confirmation from the coalition.
The Arab states see the rise of Houthis as expansionism by their foe Iran.
They aim to restore Hadi, who was driven into exile in 2014. The Houthis say they took power through a popular revolt and are now defending Yemen from invasion.