The United Arab Emirates’ ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva said on Thursday that the four Emirati troops who were killed in Yemen were taking part in the campaign to retake the port city of Hodeida.

Ambassador Obaid Salem al-Zaabi made the comments during a news conference with journalists.

Al-Zaabi declined to offer further specifics about the soldiers’ deaths.

Asked whether he worried the Shiite rebels known as Houthis would damage the crucial Yemen port, the ambassador said: “They will damage it, but we have plans for that.”

He added that the UAE and the Saudi-led coalition went ahead with the campaign despite knowing that international aid agencies fear it could lead to a humanitarian crisis.

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.

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.

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