KHOKHA, Yemen, June 20, (AFP): Yemeni forces seized Hodeida airport on Wednesday in a major step towards retaking the rebel-held port city after a week of fighting that has left nearly 350 people dead. Fresh clashes later erupted between UAE-backed government forces and the Iran-allied rebels on a road linking the airport to Hodeida port on the Red Sea coast, a Yemeni army source said.
The city, a crucial entrypoint for imports and humanitarian aid, is the target of a massive operation launched last week by a Saudi-led coalition fighting on the side of the government. Pro-government forces announced the capture of Hodeida airport in the morning, a day after breaking through the perimeter fence. “The airport was completely cleared, Thank God, and is under control,” the coalition commander for the Red Sea coast, Abdul Salaam al-Shehi, said in a video distributed by the United Arab Emirates’ official WAM news agency.
UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash tweeted that the “liberation of Hodeida is the beginning to ending the war. “The choice in Yemen is between the state and militia, between order and violence, between peace and war,” he wrote, referring to Houthi militiamen. At least 156 Houthis and 28 soldiers were killed in the fight for the airport, according to Hodeida hospital sources. That raised the death toll in the week-old battle for the city to 348. No civilian casualties have yet been confirmed.
On June 13, Yemen’s army and its allies launched their offensive to clear Hodeida of rebel fighters who have held it since 2014, raising UN concerns for vital aid shipments and food imports through the city’s docks. The airport is disused but housed a major rebel base just inland from the coastal road into the city from the south.
It lies eight kilometres (five miles) from the city’s port, through which three-quarters of Yemen’s imports pass, providing a lifeline for some 22 million people dependent on aid.
UN envoy Martin Griffiths held four days of talks in the rebel-held capital Sanaa in a bid to avert an all-out battle for the city but flew out on Tuesday without announcing any breakthrough.
The United Arab Emirates and other members of a Saudi-led coalition that intervened in support of the government in 2015 have accused regional arch foe Iran of using Hodeida as conduit for arms smuggling to the rebels.
Tehran has denied the allegation. The United Nations has warned any attack on Hodeida port could cripple shipments of desperately needed aid to the 8.4 million Yemenis facing imminent starvation.
The Norwegian Refugee Council said the fighting had already disrupted water supplies, putting people at high risk of contamination. “As of 19 June, the water supply has been disrupted in several areas and people are reportedly relying on water from mosque wells,” it said in a statement.