Saturday 24 August 2019

Civilians flee after Yemeni port pounded by air strikes

People inspect damage at a Doctors Without Borders medical facility after it was hit by an air strike in Abss, Yemen. Photo: Reuters
People inspect damage at a Doctors Without Borders medical facility after it was hit by an air strike in Abss, Yemen. Photo: Reuters

Mohammed Ghobari

Arab warplanes and warships pounded Houthi positions in the Yemeni city of Hodeidah for a second day yesterday, as a Saudi-led alliance tried to seize the port in the largest battle of a war that has created the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

Two residents contacted by Reuters said Apache attack helicopters were conducting intensive strikes on a strip of coastal territory near the city's airport.

Coalition forces were now just 2km from the airport, Emirati Ambassador to the United Nations Obeid Salem Al Zaabi told reporters in Geneva.

The UN is struggling to avert disruption to the port, the main lifeline for food aid to a country where 8.4 million people are on the verge of starvation.

The Arab coalition also struck the main road linking Hodeidah to the capital Sanaa to block reinforcements, residents and anti-Houthi Yemeni military officials said.

The Iran-aligned Houthis control the capital and most of Yemen's populated areas. The Arab states have been fighting since 2015 to unseat them, restore an exiled Saudi-backed government and halt what they see as Iranian expansionism.

"People are scared. The warships are terrifying and warplanes are flying overhead all the time," university student Amina (22), who lives near the port, told Reuters by telephone.

"People are fleeing the city to the countryside, but for those with no relatives there or money, there is no escape."

Capturing Hodeidah, the Houthis' only port, would give the coalition the upper hand in the war.

Western countries have quietly backed the Arab coalition, but the threat of humanitarian catastrophe could lead to that support unravelling.

The UN said it was still bringing in aid: "We are there and delivering, we are not leaving Hodeidah," UN humanitarian co-ordinator for Yemen Lise Grande said.

Saudi air defences intercepted a missile over the southern city of Khamis Mushait yesterday, Saudi-owned Al Arabiya TV reported. Houthi-run Al Masirah television said the missile hit its target, an air base.

Arab diplomats say there are plans in place to prevent the battle from causing a humanitarian disaster, and they will be able to improve food supplies once they control the port.

The UN Security Council was due to meet behind closed doors yesterday, at the request of Britain, over the offensive.

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