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Arab forces seize entrance to airport in Yemen’s port city

Updated June 16, 2018

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Yemeni pro-government forces gather near Hodeida airport on Friday.—AFP
Yemeni pro-government forces gather near Hodeida airport on Friday.—AFP

ADEN: Forces from an alliance of Arab states seized the entrance to the airport in Yemen’s main port city on Friday, in an offensive against the Iran-aligned Houthi movement that the United Nations fears could trigger a famine imperilling millions of lives.

The swift advance was an important early success for the Saudi — and Emirati-led alliance, which launched the operation in Hodeidah three days ago and says it can seize the city quickly enough to avoid interrupting aid to millions facing starvation.

“We saw the resistance forces in the square at the northwestern entrance to the airport,” said a Hodeidah resident, referring to Yemeni allies of the Saudi-led coalition. Two Yemeni military officials allied to the coalition confirmed it.

Alliance-backed Yemeni forces tweeted that they had also seized the airport’s southern entrance, advancing down a main road towards the seaport.

Residents in the city, controlled by the Houthis, said battles had been fought in the Manzar neighbourhood, which abuts the wall surrounding the airport.

“There have been terrifying bombing runs since the morning when they struck Houthi positions near the airport,” said fish vendor Ammar Ahmed. “We live days of terror that we have never known before.” Apache attack helicopters hovered over Manzar, firing at Houthi snipers and fighters in schools and other buildings, said another Hodeidah resident, who asked not to be identified. Houthi forces had entered homes overlooking the main road to go onto the roofs. Dozens of Manzar residents fled to the city centre on motorcycles, the resident said.

Streets elsewhere in the city were empty despite the Eid holiday marking the end of the Ramazan fast.

The coalition of Arab states has battled with little success for three years to defeat the Houthis, who control the capital Sanaa, the main port at Hodeidah and most of Yemen’s populated areas. The assault on Hodeidah is the alliance’s first attempt to capture such a well-defended major city.

“We are at the edges of the airport and are working to secure it now,” the Arab coalition said in a statement. “Operational priority is to avoid civilian casualties, maintain the flow of humanitarian aid, and allow for the UN to press the Houthis to evacuate the city.”

The assault is a dramatic gamble by the Arab states, who insist that they can swiftly capture the port without a major disruption to aid supplies for a country already experiencing the world’s most pressing humanitarian crisis.

The United Nations, which struggled but failed to find a diplomatic path to head off the assault, fears it will cut off the only lifeline for most Yemenis. Some 22 million depend on aid and 8.4 million are at immediate risk of starvation.

Western countries have long given the Arab states tacit diplomatic backing and sell them billions of dollars a year in arms. But that support could falter if the assault provokes the feared humanitarian catastrophe.

“I urge all parties to the conflict to meet their obligations to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure and take active steps to respect international humanitarian law,” David Beasleye, executive director of the UN World Food Programme, said in a statement.

Published in Dawn, June 16th, 2018

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