Yemenis flee port as Arab allies launch huge assault
A Saudi-led alliance of Arab states yesterday launched the largest assault of Yemen's war, with an attack on the main port city aiming to drive the ruling Houthi movement to its knees at the risk of worsening the world's biggest humanitarian crisis.
Arab warplanes and warships pounded Houthi fortifications to support ground operations by foreign and Yemeni troops massed south of Hodeidah in operation "Golden Victory".
The assault marked the first time the Arab states have tried to capture such a heavily defended major city since they joined the war three years ago against the Iran-aligned Houthis, who control the capital Sanaa and most populated areas.
Care International, one of the few aid organisations still operating in Hodeidah, said 30 air strikes had hit the city within half an hour yesterday, causing thousands to look for escape routes from the city.
"Some civilians are trapped, others forced from their homes. We thought it could not get any worse, but we were wrong," said Care acting country director, Jolien Veldwijk.
The United Nations fears the assault could drastically worsen already desperate conditions in the region's poorest country.
The city is home to 600,000, and the port is the main route for food and aid to reach most Yemenis, 8.4m of whom are on the verge of famine.
"Under international humanitarian law, parties to the conflict have to do everything possible to protect civilians and ensure they have access to the assistance they need to survive," said Lise Grande, UN humanitarian co-ordinator for Yemen, who is in Sanaa.
UN refugee chief Filippo Grandi said there was a danger of the crisis escalating further if Yemenis abandon their homes in large numbers.
The bombardment began a three-day deadline set by the United Arab Emirates for the Houthis to quit the port expired.
"The liberation of the port is the start of the fall of the Houthi militia and will secure marine shipping in the Bab al-Mandab strait and cut off the hands of Iran, which has long drowned Yemen in weapons that shed precious Yemeni blood," the Arab-backed government-in-exile said in a statement.
Houthi leader Mohammed Ali Al-Houthi, who has threatened attacks on oil tankers, claimed his forces had struck a coalition barge. The UN, meanwhile, warned an attack on the port was "likely to exacerbate an already catastrophic humanitarian situation".