KHOKHA, Yemen, June 26, (Agencies): Air strikes and artillery fire killed 55 people near Yemen’s Hodeidah, medical sources and residents said Tuesday, as the UAE insisted Houthi rebels pull out of the key port city. Hodeidah port has been held by the Iran-backed Houthis since 2014, when the rebels drove the government out of the capital and seized control of territory across northern Yemen and the Red Sea coastline.
On June 13, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and their allies in a progovernment regional coalition launched a major offensive to retake the port, through which nearly three quarters of Yemen’s imports flow.
The coalition alleges the port has been used by the rebels as an entry point for weapons smuggled from Saudi Arabia’s arch-foe Iran. On Tuesday, medical sources and residents said an air strike killed eight people travelling on a bus on the road to Zabid in southern Hodeidah province. Their identities could not immediately be confirmed.
A second strike outside Hodeidah killed six Houthi rebels travelling in a military vehicle, according to the same sources. The Saudi-led coalition, which usually conducts air raids in the area, could not immediately be reached for comment. Exchanges of artillery fire south of Hodeidah city also left 38 Houthi fighters and three pro-government troops dead in the past 24 hours, according to medical and local sources. The UN envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, is due in Yemen’s southern city of Aden on Wednesday for talks with President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, whose forces have battled for weeks to regain control of Hodeidah.
The rebels have said they may be willing to share control of Hodeidah’s port with the United Nations but say their forces must remain in the docks and the rest of the Red Sea city. The United Arab Emirates, which has US-trained troops deployed on the ground in western Yemen, is demanding the rebels withdraw from both the port and city to avoid a military assault on densely populated Hodeidah. “We are hopeful and we believe in the political process,”
Reem al-Hashimi, the UAE minister of state for international cooperation, said Tuesday. But “we cannot imagine a setup where the Houthis can be in the city” of Hodeidah, she told reporters in Abu Dhabi. Griffiths, who held a first round of meetings on the Hodeidah crisis in rebel-held Sanaa earlier this month, is holding talks with both sides to “return rapidly to the negotiating table”, his office said. Nearly 10,000 people have died in the Yemen war since 2015 when Saudi Arabia and its allies joined the government’s fight against the Houthis.
The conflict has pushed Yemen, long the most impoverished country in the Arab world, to the brink of famine. Reem al-Hashimi, 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 Griffiths “and we do want to see this come to a positive conclusion.” But she added: “There are really certain elements we won’t 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 have told Reuters.
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 told Reuters the Houthis are digging trenches, building defence berms and reinforcing their ranks with troops in Hodeidah and in other towns surrounding the city.