ABU DHABI: The United Arab Emirates (UAE) said on Tuesday an Arab coalition fighting the Houthis in Yemen was cooperating with a UN envoy to end fighting, but the Houthis must quit the port city of Hodeidah as a condition for any peace deal.

UN envoy Martin Griffiths is visiting the southern city of Aden on Wednesday for talks with ousted President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi in the exiled governments temporary capital, after similar talks with the Houthis in Sanaa last week.

The UN is seeking a breakthrough in the three-year-old conflict that has killed more than 10,000 and caused the worlds most urgent humanitarian crisis, with millions facing starvation and disease.

The Houthis control the capital and most populated areas. The alliance of Arab states led by the UAE and Saudi Arabia has been fighting since 2015 to restore Hadi’s government, and describes the Houthis as pawns of Iran, which the Houthis deny.

The coalition launched the biggest assault of the war this month on Hodeidah, Yemen’s main port city, and seized the airport last week.

The international community fears the humanitarian crisis could sharply worsen if fighting for the port causes an interruption in aid. Forces backed by the UAE have been consolidating near the airport before a push to the seaport.

Reem al-Hashimy, the UAE minister of state for international cooperation, told reporters in the UAE capital Abu Dhabi that the coalition was in close contact with UN envoy Giffiths “and we do want to see this come to a positive conclusion.

But she added: “There are really certain elements we wont sway from ... the withdrawal of Houthis from the city is essential.” The Iran-aligned Houthis have indicated they would be willing to hand over management of Hodeidah port to the United Nations, and Washington has encouraged the Arabs to accept such a deal, Western sources said.

However, it remains to be seen whether the Houthis could be persuaded to leave the city. They have been preparing for battle in urban areas, where the Arab states’ forces would be expected to meet tougher resistance than they have so far.

Residents said the Houthis are digging trenches, building defence berms and reinforcing their ranks with troops in Hodeidah and in other towns surrounding the city.

“People in the city are afraid to die and their only hope is that the UN envoy will get a peace deal and prevent the war, though nobody is optimistic because of their previous attempts,” said Houda Ahmed, a teacher in Hodeidah city.

Published in Dawn, June 27th, 2018