Coalition forces surround key Yemen airport

Success for Saudi-led coalition in its first attempt to capture the strategic part of Hodeida could put rebels in their weakest position.

ADEN - Forces from an Arab alliance entered the airport in Yemen's main port city on Saturday, the coalition-backed Yemeni military said, in the biggest offensive of the coalition's war against the Iran-aligned Houthis.

Victory for the alliance in their first attempt to capture a strategic part of a well-defended city could put the Houthis in their weakest position since the conflict erupted three years ago.

A defeat would also cut off supply lines to the Houthi-controlled capital, Sanaa, and possibly force the movement to negotiate as the world's biggest humanitarian disaster ravages the country.

"Army forces backed by the resistance and the Arab alliance freed Hodeida international airport from the grip of the Houthi militia," the media office of the pro-alliance Yemeni military said on Twitter on Saturday.

Ground troops - which include United Arab Emirates forces, Sudanese and Yemenis from various factions - have surrounded the main airport compound but have not seized it, a source in the coalition-allied Yemeni military and residents said.

"We need some time to make sure there are no gunmen, mines or explosive in the building," the military source said. The military's media office said technical teams were de-mining the surrounding area.

Aly Omar and his family spent three days trapped in the Manzar neighbourhood abutting the airport as fighting raged.

"We didn't have any food, or drink or anything, not even water," Omar said, standing in a hospital on Friday night beside his son, who was wounded by an air strike.

"I treated him on a bus after he was injured in an air strike, which is unacceptable. I call on the United Nations and the Red Cross to open a way for us to get out of the situation we're in. Our kids, women and elderly are stuck ..."

"Death and poverty are all around us. We are scared to leave our homes after the fighting reached the airport," said Abdelqader, a resident who used to work at a cement plant. "No work, no salary, we are just waiting for God's mercy."

Samy Mansour, head of the emergency room at Al-Thawra Hospital said: "We're still treating people on the scene and transporting them to the hospital."

The battle has blocked the key northern exit out of the city which leads to Yemen's capital Sanaa, and made it more difficult to transport goods from the port, the country's largest, to mountainous regions. This has raised fears that the fighting will cut off the only lifeline for most Yemenis.

Fears of famine

Around 22 million people in Yemen depend on the humanitarian aid efforts, with 8.4 million at risk of starvation.

Air strikes, blockades and fighting have killed more than 10,000 people since the war began in 2015. A Saudi-led alliance intervened then to restore an internationally recognised Yemeni government in exile and thwart what Riyadh and Abu Dhabi see as efforts by their archfoe, Iran, to dominate the region.

The UN special envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, is due to arrive in Sanaa on Saturday.

"The UN envoy has accomplished nothing so far. He provides a cover for the continued aggression," Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdul-Salam said on Houthi-run media.

The Arab alliance, which launched the operation in Hodeida four days ago, says it can seize the city quickly enough to avoid interrupting aid to the millions facing starvation.

Riyadh accused the Houthis of using the port to smuggle Iranian-made weapons, including missiles that have targeted Saudi cities - accusations denied by the group and Tehran.

If the Hodeidah fighting drags on, causing big coalition casualties and an outcry over a humanitarian catastrophe, it may work in the Houthis' favour. If the Houthis are driven out, the coalition could get the upper hand in the war.

The alliance has superior weaponry, including fighter planes, provided by the United States and other Western powers. This includes French special forces who are on the ground in Yemen with UAE forces, the French newspaper Le Figaro reported on Saturday, citing two military sources.

The Houthis, highly experienced in mountain warfare, have advanced on sandal-shod feet and by pickup truck in battles across Yemen.

Defeating the Houthis in Hodeida in the biggest battle of the war could have ramifications far beyond the city of 600,000.

The Yemen conflict is part of a proxy war between Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia and Shi'ite Iran across the Middle East.

President Donald Trump's withdrawal from the international nuclear deal and his embrace of nuclear state North Korea has dealt a blow to Tehran and put it under pressure to entrench its interests in Arab countries.

Even if the Houthis are defeated in Hodeidah, securing peace would be an arduous process in a civil war complicated by other parties, including loyalists of the late President Ali Abdullah Saleh, southern separatists and Al Qaeda.