Cairo: Yemeni government forces, supported by the Arab coalition, on Thursday pressed ahead with a major offensive aimed at recapturing a vital harbour and airport in the country’s western city of Hodeida from Iran-aligned Al Houthis.
On the second day of the operation codenamed the “Golden Victory”, the government forces were about two kilometres from the Hodeida airport, military sources reported.
Coalition warplanes, meanwhile, intensified bombing of Al Houthis’ positions in the vicinity of the airport.
Forces of the internationally-recognised government on Wednesday started a large-scale assault aimed at expelling Al Houthis from Hodeida after militants spurned peace offers.
Yemeni Prime Minister Ahmad Obeid Bin Dagher on Thursday said that the government forces were on the cusp of achieving victory over Al Houthis, who have been in control of the capital Sana’a and Hodeida since late 2014.
“We are nearing a real and emphatic victory in these blessed days by liberating and restoring the Hodeida port,” Bin Dagher said following his arrival in the southern city of Aden from Saudi Arabia.
He accused Al Houthis of having used the harbour to obtain smuggled weapons.
“In the next days, the government will give great attention to the province of Hodeida and bring life back to normal in all areas liberated from Al Houthi militias,” he added, according to Yemen’s official news agency Saba.
The Hodeida port is a lifeline for millions of Yemenis as most of the commercial imports and relief supplies are handled at the Red Sea harbour.
Ali Al Ahmad, the Emirati Ambassador to Germany, told Reuters there were 60,000 tonnes of humanitarian aid ready on ships and trucks to move into the region once the fighting died down.
He said it would take Arab forces about 72 hours to clear mines from Hodeida’s port or airport once it captures them.
“It’s very important for our credibility to make sure that people in need get the help they need,” he said.
Al Houthis have repeatedly threatened to attack oil tankers using Bab Al Mandab, a major waterway between the Arabian Peninsula and Africa, linking the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden and the Suez Canal.
The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, leading partners to the Arab Coalition, have unveiled a “humanitarian initiative” for Hodeida and other areas liberated from Al Houthis.
The plan features delivering food, medical and oil supplies via the sea to the coastal province.
“In order to ensure success of this initiative, the Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates appeal to the international community, especially the UN agencies, international organisations and all partners to cooperate to expedite offering assistance to the brotherly Yemeni people through the Hodeida port and other outlets,” the alliance said in a statement released in the Saudi capital Riyadh.
Hodeida lies 230 kilometres from Sana’a, which Al Houthis seized in a coup in 2014.
This prompted a Saudi-led intervention in Yemen the following year, aimed at restoring the internationally-recognised government of exiled President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
The coalition accuses Al Houthis of using Hodeida as a launch pad for attacks on shipping in the Red Sea and for smuggling in weapons.
Al Houthis have in recent months ramped up missile attacks against neighbouring Saudi Arabia.
The Governor of Hodeida, Al Hassan Taher, has said that government troops have drawn up a plan to partially encircle the city.
“The army troops are advancing towards Hodeida and are working to encircle it from two directions: in the south and south-east with the aim of blocking any supplies to the [Al Houthi] militias from Sana’a and Taiz [in the south],” Taher told the London-based newspaper Al Sharq Al Awsat recently.
The UAE, Saudi Arabia’s main coalition ally, set up a force in early 2018 to ramp up the coastal offensive.
Capturing Hodeida, Al Houthis’ only port, would give the coalition the upper hand in the war by cutting off a vital source of aid and weapons which the militants have used to sustain their war efforts.
UN Security Council meeting
The UN Security Council is due to meet behind closed doors on Thursday, at the request of Britain, over the offensive.
The UN special envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, has said the world body is talking to both sides to de-escalate.
Coalition spokesman Turki Al Malki has said operation “Golden Victory” aimed to wrest control of the port and airport, but that troops would avoid entering the city.
A Yemeni military official said the 21,000-strong ground force - which includes Emiratis, Sudanese and Yemenis from several factions - was de-mining the coastal strip south of Hodeida and combing rural areas for Al Houthi militants.