The death toll climbed to at least 280 by the fourth day of the campaign on Saturday aimed at driving out the Iranian-backed Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, from the Red Sea port of Hodeidah. It is the entry point for food and aid supplies in a country teetering on the brink of famine.
The Saudi-led pro-government forces had “freed” the airport in the country’s main port city, the media office said.
“Army forces backed by the resistance and the Arab alliance freed Hodeidah international airport from the grip of the Houthi militia,” the military said on Twitter on Saturday.
Earlier, the Saudi-Emirati coalition bombed Houthi positions, while rebels said in a statement that they fired a ballistic missile at pro-government forces.
Yemeni officials said dozens of pro-government fighters have been killed since the assault began Wednesday, mainly from land mines and roadside bombs disguised as rocks or sacks of wheat. On the rebel side, bodies of Houthi fighters were strewn across the front lines.
Military officials said preparations had been under way for a final push to take the airport on Saturday and that the ground battles had largely subsided by sunset Friday. The assault on the airport had been scheduled to start at dawn on Saturday.
Military commanders said the operation was complicated because the aim was to protect airport facilities, buildings and nearby fighter jets. The Houthis had depended on snipers and land mines to slow down the multi-pronged advance.
Aid workers have warned the assault on Hodiedah’s port, known as the ‘mouth of Yemen’, could shut down the vital route for some 70 percent of Yemen’s food and humanitarian aid. Two-thirds of Yemen’s population of 27 million relies on aid and 8.4 m are already at risk of starving.
The Saudi-led coalition accuses the Houthis of using the port to smuggle weapons and missiles from Iran. The rebels have been raining ballistic missiles down on Saudi cities from across the border. The port is also a lucrative source of revenue for the Houthis, who have controlled most of northern Yemen since 2014.
The United Arab Emirates’ minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, said that the battle over Hodeidah is essential to break a stalemate in the civil war, which otherwise could drag on for years.
Seizing the port “means that the Houthis will no longer be able to impose their will at the barrel of a gun,” he said in a post on Twitter. “If they keep Hodeidah and its revenues and its strategic location, the war will last a long time and (add to) the suffering of the Yemeni people.”
The fighting comes at a time when Muslims around the world are celebrating the Eid al-Fitr holiday at the end of the holy month of Ramadan. But in Hodeidah, people were stockpiling what little food they could for fear of an imminent siege. Streets were empty except for beggars and fighters.
Home to nearly 600,000 people, Hodeidah some 150 kilometers southwest of Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, which is under Houthi control.
In a series of tweets, the International Committee of the Red Cross said the people in Hodeidah were “bracing for the worst,” and tens of thousands were expected to flee in the coming days, some for a second time.
“People live in slums in the outskirts surviving on bread crumbs they find in the garbage. With the little money they do have, they buy cooking oil in plastic bags just enough to cook 1 meal a day,” the group said, citing the accounts of staffers.
The Saudi-led coalition has imposed an air, sea, and land embargo on Yemen since March 2015, aiming to dislodge the Houthis from the territory they control, paralyzing trade and access to the country.
The coalition air campaign and Houthi bombardment have left more than 10,000 people dead and 2 million displaced, and devastated the country’s already fragile infrastructure, including the health sector, which has helped spawn a cholera epidemic.
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