Cairo: The Yemeni government has demanded Iran-aligned Al Houthis withdraw from the western city of Hodeida and its vital harbour or face military action.
The demand was renewed by Yemeni Foreign Minister Khalid Al Yamani, more than a month after pro-government forces, supported by a Saudi-led Arab coalition, unleashed a major offensive to expel Al Houthis from the Red Sea city.
“There must be a complete exit of [Al Houthi] militias to be replaced by police forces who are directly supervised by the Interior Ministry and the legitimacy administration,” Al Yamani said in the Saudi capital Riyadh.
Al Houthis seized Hodeida in October 2014, a month after they overran the capital Sana’a in a coup against the internationally recognised government.
Al Yamani also demanded Al Houthis hand over financial sources under their control to the central bank of Yemen, the pan-Arab newspaper Asharq Al Awsat reported on Wednesday.
“In case the coup militias refused to withdraw, the legitimacy forces would have no option but to continue liberating the remaining areas [still under Al Houthi control] including Sana’a,” he said.
The battle for Hodeida, the biggest in Yemen’s three-year war, has been temporarily halted in support of UN peace efforts that have yet to make a breakthrough.
Meanwhile, French newspaper Le Figaro reported that Al Houthi militant chief Abdul Malek Al Houthi said he is ready to hand over control of the port of Hodeida to the United Nations if the Saudi-led coalition halts its offensive.
Hodeida is strategically important because of its harbour, which is a lifeline for millions of Yemenis, as most of the commercial imports and relief supplies enter through it to the country.
The Arab Coalition accuses Al Houthis of taking advantage of their control of the harbour to obtain weapons from their Iranian patrons as well as confiscate aid intended for Yemenis in order to sustain their war efforts.
In recent weeks, UN peace envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, has intensified his efforts to head off an all-out battle in Hodeida, a city of about 600,000 people.
Al Yamani said that Griffiths has exercised pressure on the Yemeni government and allied coalition since he became in charge of Yemen’s crisis in March.
“Griffiths tried to pressure the legitimate government, using the humanitarian issue in order to reach results in the political file,” the minister said without elaborating.
Yemen’s war has resulted in displacing millions and pushing the poor country to the brink of famine.
Having suffered recent military setbacks, Al Houthis have increased violence against civilians, including using them as human shields.
In recent weeks, the coalition has pursued a multi-front campaign in Yemen, including Saada, Al Houthis’ far northern stronghold near the Saudi border.
The Iran-aligned extremists have used Saada as a launch pad for firing ballistic missiles across the border into the Saudi territory.
On Wednesday, the Saudi air defences intercepted and destroyed a ballistic missile fired by Al Houthis towards the southern Saudi region of Najran, Al Arabiya television reported.
The missile was “deliberately” launched by the Iran-allied extremists targeting inhabited areas in Najran, a coalition official said. The missile interception caused no casualties.
Government forces have made further advances against Al Houthis in the province of Taiz in south-western Yemen, military sources said on Wednesday.
The Yemeni army has liberated strategic positions in Taiz after fierce clashes against Al Houthis, the pro-government news portal Aden Al Ghad reported, citing a military source. The advance will enable the government forces to cut off the militants’ supply routes in the region, the source added.
In March 2015, the Arab Coalition, including the UAE, initiated a campaign in Yemen against Al Houthis after the militants advanced on the southern city of Aden, the temporary capital of the country after their takeover of Sana’a.