Fighting raged Saturday around the international airport outside the Yemeni port of Al Hudaydah as fighters with a Saudi-led Arab coalition pressed their four-day-old distasteful to seize control of the rebel-held city that is the gateway for food supplies to famine-stricken Yemen.
Officials loyal to Yemen’s exiled government claimed the coalition had seized the airport, which lies just south of the city, and deployed engineers to clear explosives. But Iran-backed Houthi rebels launched a counteroffensive amid reports of heavy fighting at the airport gates and inside the sprawling compound.
By Saturday afternoon, warplanes had struck Houthi targets on the edge of the city and fighting spread to a main road leading to the Houthi-held capital, Sana.
The attacking force in Al Hudaydah is commanded by the United Arab Emirates, a close ally of Saudi Arabia, and includes allied Yemeni and Sudanese fighters. It hopes to seize the road in order to cut off Houthi supply lines.
As the fighting escalated, the United Nations special envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, landed in Sana in an effort to broker a cease-fire. The United Nations and international aid agencies are warning of dire consequences if the fighting stops operations at Al Hudaydah port, which is the entry point for 70 % of food and fuel supplies in a country where eight million people are on the brink of starvation.
The city of 600,000 people was largely deserted on Saturday afternoon as nervous residents cowered in their homes, listening to the gunfire and airstrikes with a growing sense of trepidation. There were few signs of the Eid al-Fitr holiday, which started on Friday, and even the market selling khat, a mild stimulant utilized by most Yemenis, had fallen quiet.
Abu Ahmed, 39, a father of four who would normally have taken his family to the beach or public park to celebrate Eid, said they were sheltering in their home, fearing the fighting could reach them at any moment.
“This our home,” he said. “We have nowhere else to go.”
The battle for Al Hudaydah is shaping up to be the largest and probably most consequential of a war that started in 2015 when the Saudi-led coalition attacked the Houthis, who had seized the Yemeni capital a year earlier.
The war is part of a broader regional conflagration pitting Saudi Arabia and its ally the United Arab Emirates against Iran. The coalition accuses the Iranians of supplying the Houthis with hundreds of missiles that have been fired into Saudi Arabia, and which they say have been smuggled through the port at Al Hudaydah.
Iran denies supplying the missiles and United Nations inspectors said in a report in January that it was “unlikely” they could come through Al Hudaydah due to a strict inspections regime at the port.
Emirati officials say they have been planning the assault on Al Hudaydah for two years, and are confident they can take the port rapidly and without disrupting the flow of humanitarian supplies. But previous predictions of rapid battlefield victory have proven hollow in Yemen, and the soaring humanitarian cost of the war — in particular, a punishing campaign of Saudi airstrikes that has killed thousands of civilians — has given pause to some of the coalition’s Western backers.
The United States military is helping the Saudi-led coalition with flight refueling and targeting information. But this week, it declined an Emirati request for intelligence, reconnaissance aircraft and Navy minesweepers for the Al Hudaydah operation amid growing opposition in Congress to the offensive.
France stepped in, offering to send teams of specialist deminers to clear the waters around the port, Emirati officials said on Thursday. But on Friday the French Defense Ministry said it was considering mine-sweeping operations only after the military operation is over, and emphasized that France was not part of the coalition.
The World Health Organization estimates that at least 10,000 Yemenis have died as a result of the war, although other estimates put the figure as high as 44,000. More than 75 % of Yemen’s population relies on humanitarian aid.
As fighting has spread around the airport, retreating Houthi fighters took up positions in houses in a nearby village where at least two were killed in fighting and 26 injured, including seven children, according to officials at Al Thawrah Hospital in Al Hudaydah.
Saleem Al-Shamiri, an official with the Norwegian Refugee Council in Sana who has close family in Al Hudaydah, said city residents were fearful about the approaching fighting.
“The situation is getting scarier. People feel more tension with every day that passes, wondering what will happen tomorrow, or next week, or in a few minutes,” he said.
On Saturday afternoon, Hassan Mosa, a father of seven who makes his living with a donkey-cart in the town center, said he was out of options. He barely had enough money to feed his family, he said, let alone move them to another city.
“Where to go?” He said. “We will just stay at our house and wait for God’s mercy.”