Troops in a Saudi-led coalition have captured a town south of the Yemen port city of Hodeida as fierce fighting and air strikes pounded the area, officials said.
On the second day of an offensive to capture the strategic harbour, soldiers took the town of Nakhila 12 miles south of Hodeida International Airport, according to the government-run SABA news agency.
The Saudi-led coalition backing Yemen’s exiled government launched an assault on Hodeida on Wednesday. The Red Sea port is the main entry for food into a country on the brink of famine.
The biggest offensive of the years-long war in the Arab world’s poorest nation has raised warnings from aid agencies that Yemen’s humanitarian disaster could deepen.
The attack is aimed at driving out Iranian-aligned Shiite rebels known as Houthis, who have held Hodeida since 2015, and break the civil war’s long stalemate, but it could set off a prolonged street-by-street battle that would inflict heavy casualties.
The fear is that a protracted fight could force a shutdown of Hodeida’s port at a time when a halt in aid risks tipping millions into starvation. Some 70% of Yemen’s food enters through the port, as well as the bulk of humanitarian aid and fuel supplies.
Around two-thirds of the country’s population of 27 million relies on aid and 8.4 million are already at risk of starving.
Early on Wednesday, convoys of vehicles headed towards the rebel-held city as heavy gunfire rang out.
The assault, part of an operation dubbed Golden Victory, began with coalition air strikes and shelling by naval ships, according to Saudi-owned satellite news channels and state media.
Bombardment was heavy, with one aid official reporting 30 strikes in 30 minutes.
The initial battle plan appeared to involve a pincer movement. About 2,000 troops who crossed the Red Sea from an Emirati naval base in the African nation of Eritrea were awaiting orders to move in from the west after Yemeni government forces seize Hodeida’s port, Yemeni security officials said.
Emirati forces with Yemeni government troops moved in from the south near Hodeida’s airport, while others sought to cut off Houthi supply lines to the east, the officials said.
Yemen’s exiled government “has exhausted all peaceful and political means to remove the Houthi militia from the port of Hodeida”, it said in a statement. “Liberation of the port of Hodeida is a milestone in our struggle to regain Yemen from the militias.”
Four Emirati soldiers were killed in Wednesday’s assault, the United Arab Emirates’ state-run news agency said, but gave no details of how they died.
The Houthi-run Al Masirah satellite news channel claimed rebel forces hit a Saudi coalition ship near Hodeida with two missiles.
Forces loyal to Yemen’s exiled government and fighters led by Emirati troops had neared Hodeida in recent days. The port is 90 miles south west of Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, which has been in Houthi hands since September 2014. The Saudi-led coalition entered the war in March 2015.
The United Nations and other aid groups already had pulled their international staff from Hodeida ahead of the assault. The UN Security Council is scheduled to meet to discuss the offensive.