Arab coalition forces up the ante in Yemen's third-largest city Taiz. Image Credit: WAM

Cairo: Yemeni government forces, supported by the Arab Coalition, started on Wednesday a major offensive to liberate the western city of Hodeidah and its strategic port from Iran-allied Al Houthis.

The assault marks the first time the Arab states have tried to capture such a heavily-defended major city since they joined the war three years ago against the militants, who control the capital Sana’a and most of the populated areas.

The operation comes after Al Houthis consistently rejected peace proposals, in the past and under the current UN Envoy Martin Griffiths, to head off the onslaught by ceding to the port’s control over to a neutral party.

Shortly after the launch of the operation codenamed the “Golden Victory”, Yemeni forces retook the suburb of Nekhailah from Al Houthis amid collapses in their ranks, the Yemeni army said.

Coalition air strikes and warships pounded Al Houthi positions in the Red Sea city, home to the Hodeida port that receives most humanitarian aid and trade to Yemen.

AlHouthis had deployed military vehicles and troops in the city centre and near the port, as coalition warplanes flew overhead striking a coastal strip to the south, one resident, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters.

People were fleeing by routes out to the north and west.

Salah Al Hadi, an Egyptian political analyst, warned that Al Houthis could use subversive tactics in order to maintain their grip on Hodeida port—the last port in the country under their control.

“They might have already planted naval mines around entrances to the city in order to hamper the coalition offensive,” Al Hadi told Gulf News.

“They may also destroy facilities of the vital port before their withdrawal and increase the launch of ballistic missiles across the border into Saudi territory.”

In recent months, Saudi air defence forces have intercepted several such missiles that in some cases killed civilians.

A Yemeni anti-Houthi military official said the alliance had brought to bear a 21,000-strong force.

It includes Emirati and Sudanese troops as well as Yemenis, drawn from southern separatists, local Red Sea coast fighters and a battalion led by a nephew of late ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Yemen’s internationally-recognised government said that Wednesday’s operation was carried out after all “peaceful and political avenues were exhausted”.

Port workers told Reuters five ships were docked at Hodeida port unloading goods, but no new entry permits would be issued on Wednesday due to the fighting.

The Arab states say they will try to keep the port running and can ease the crisis once they seize it by lifting import restrictions they have imposed.

Western countries, particularly the United States and Britain, have backed the Arab states diplomatically and sell them billions of dollars a year in arms.

The Saudi-led alliance has accused Al Houthis of using Hodeida port to illegally obtain weapons from their patron Iran.

“The liberation of Al Hodeida port will represent a landmark in our struggle to restore Yemen form the militias that has hijacked it to promote foreign agendas,” the Yemeni government said in a statement following the commencement of the operation.

The operation began after the passing of a three-day deadline set by the United Arab Emirates, one of the coalition’s leaders, for the Houthis to quit the port.

“The liberation of the port also represents the beginning of Al Houthis’ fall and will help to secure maritime traffic in the Bab Al Mandab Strait as well as chopping the hands of Iran, which has long swamped Yemen with deadly weapons.”

Bab Al Mandab in south-western Yemen is a major waterway between the Arabian Peninsula and Africa, linking the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden and the Suez Canal.

In late 2014, Al Houthis seized the Yemeni capital Sana’a and other territory including Al Hodeida, raising concerns about threats to the traffic through Bab Al Mandab.

Hours before Wednesday’s operation, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash warned that Al Houthis’ occupation of Hodeida is prolonging the war in Yemen.

“The liberation of the city & port will create a new reality & bring Al Houthis to the negotiations,” Gargash said in a series of tweets.

Previous UN-mediated negotiations between representatives of the Yemeni government and the militants went nowhere.

“Al Houthis cannot hold Hodeida hostage to finance their war & divert the flow of humanitarian aid. Their assault on the Yemeni people has continued for too long,” Gargash added.

Gargash renewed the commitment of the United Arab Emirates and the Arab Coalition to “continue to accelerate” the flow of humanitarian aid to all Yemenis.

“Our age-old commitment & support to Yemen will continue.”

In March 2015, Saudi Arabia and partners, including the United Arab Emirates, started a military campaign against Al Houthis, to restore the government of internationally-recognised president Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, after the Al Houthi coup.

Since Al Houthis seized Hodeida, they have threatened to hit oil tankers passing through Bab Al Mandab.

“Bab Al Mandab is strategically important because it has access to major international markets,” Saeed Al Lawandi, an expert at the Cairo-based Al Ahram Centre for Political Studies, said.

“So, its fall to Al Houthis will allow Iran to dominate the ship passing through the waterway. Should this happen, the Egyptian economy would also suffer because the traffic in the Suez Canal would be negatively affected,” he added.

The Suez Canal is among Egypt’s main income sources.

-With inputs from Reuters