Dubai: A Saudi-led coalition fighting Al Houthis militias for control of Yemen’s main port city of Al Hodeida will take a calculated and gradual approach to the battle as the coalition is taking into consideration the ‘fragile humanitarian situation’ and avoiding civilian casualties, a UAE top official said yesterday.

“The operation is gradual and we are squeezing them [the Iran-backed Al Houthi militias] to make a point to allow Houthis to do the right thing to withdraw unconditionally so we kept an escape route to Sana’a. The full control of Hodeida is just a matter of time; we have been extremely careful in protecting, avoiding and not targeting civilians,” Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash said at a press conference at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Dubai.

He talked about the ongoing Saudi-led Arab coalition operation to liberate the city from Al Houthi control, the humanitarian situation in Hodeida and the aid air-bridge that is being sent from the UAE.

Gargash estimated the number of Al Houthi fighters in Hodeida at between 2,000 and 3,000. “They operate in small groups, not in uniform and depend on snipers and mines in their fighting strategy,” he added.

Gargash said the coalition forces facing sniper fire from civilian headquarters around the airport and they are not responding back to avoid casualties among civilians.

“We are very careful not to respond to the sniper fire as it is coming from residential neighbours around the airport. If we can do something in two hours we will do it in 12 hours as long as we can do this taking into account the humanitarian side, but we are in the airport,” Gargash said. The Emirates Red Crescent on Sunday began the distribution of urgent humanitarian supplies to civilians in the liberated areas of Hodeida, which aims to ease the suffering of Yemeni civilians who continue to face severe economic hardship due to the war.

Gargash stressed that Hodeida is a major port and a lot of humanitarian relief aid passes through the port.

Port working

“Despite the fight, the port is working. Six ships are loading and others coming. All humanitarian ships. We are preparing to send 100 trucks loaded with aid and we have plans for airdrops if necessary.

Hodeida is a moneymaker for Al Houthis to gain control, and the people of Hodeida are rejecting Al Houthis,” Gargash said. They make $3 billion through trade from that port, he said.

However, Gargash said that it is time for a political process after three years of war.

“From our prospective three years of war is enough. It is time for a political process and the Houthis don’t want to start it but we will force them to start a political process. At the end of the day Yemen needs a political process supported by the United Nations.”

He added that a Yemeni dialogue works to prevent Iran from creating militias that kidnap the state.

“This operation is intentionally calibrated to help UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths in his difficult task to persuade Al Houthis to unconditionally withdraw from Hodeida,” he said.

Griffiths, a former British diplomat, arrived in Sana’a and met with Al Houthis to convince them to peacefully hand over the city and relaunch a peace process to end Yemen’s conflict.

“The UN special envoy will leave Sana’a today and we are still counting on the UN attempt to pull a rabbit out of a hat,” Anwar Gargash said, warning Al Houthis that their days in Hodeidah “are numbered”.

Sana’a and Hodeida have been under Al Houthi control since the militants’ 2014 coup against the internationally recognised government.

“The UAE is not new to Yemen and we have been supporting Yemen since the beginning of the seventies. We are convinced that Al Houthis are the only obstacle to all peaceful initiatives in Yemen, and now they are losing Hodeida, and I hope they will look at this step more rationally,” Gargash said.

Gargash denied that French troops have been helping the coalition to take Hodeida, but said that France has offered to remove mines when it becomes necessary.

Why Hodeida now?

Gargash said that over a year ago there was an idea that Hodeida should be neutralised to be a commercial and humanitarian port and it should be handed over to a third party to ensure it is outside the conflict. “We spent more than a year through UN and other bodies trying to reach an arrangement, but it was clear that Al Houthis were buying time and they had no intention at all of forfeiting their control of the port. They want to continue controlling it because for them it is strategically and financially important,” he said.

Hodeida is a major moneymaker for Al Houthis and they need to control Yemen’s revenues, Gargash said, adding that Al Houthis have been using Hodeida to smuggle Iran-supplied weapons into Yemen.

“Hodeida is one of the avenues where Iranian arms are coming. We have seen drones and armoured weaponry and ballistic missiles that had not been there in Yemen earlier. There are Iranian fingerprints on these weapons.” Gargash said that the city of 500,000 population has rejected Al Houthis and they are moving towards ‘Welayat Al Faghih’.