United Nations appeals for key ports to be kept open in Yemen conflict

Arturo Kim
June 18, 2018

Thursday marked the first full day of fighting in and around the Yemeni port city of Hodeidah, At least 39 people were killed in the course of this fighting, and a limited amount of territory outside of the city fell to the invading pro-Saudi forces.

It described the streets of the city as "nearly empty". About 90% of food, fuel and medicines consumed in Yemen is imported, with 70% of that coming through Hodeidah, according to the UN.

"The liberation of the port of Hodeidah is a turning point in our struggle to take back Yemen from the militias that hijacked it to carry out foreign agendas", the government said in a statement on Wednesday. More are advancing to the front line. Another Yemeni commander, Abu Zarah al-Mahrami, was quoted by Dubai-based Al-Arabiya TV network as saying that pro-government forces are "within meters" of the airport. Instead, he suggested, coalition forces would focus on taking the airport, the seaport and the road to the Houthi capital at Sanaa. About a quarter of a million people are in danger of injury or death in an urban assault, the United Nations said.

Apache attack helicopters hovered over Manzar, firing at Houthi snipers and fighters in schools and other buildings, said another Hodeidah resident, who asked not to be identified.

Aid groups have warned for months that an assault on the port could disrupt the flow of relief supplies to Yemeni civilians, including an estimated eight million people who are at risk of starvation. Around two-thirds of Yemen's population of 27 million relies on aid and 8.4 million are already at risk of starving.

A proxy war is playing out in Yemen between Iran and US ally Saudi Arabia. Over 150 ballistic missiles have been fired into the kingdom by the Houthis, according to Saudi officials.

According to the kingdom's embassy in the USA, the spokesperson for its military coalition argued on Wednesday "that the current regional and global concerns, due to the Iranian-backed Houthi militias' destabilizing efforts, will be attenuated after the liberation of Hodeidah, and that normal life will return to the city".

"Hodeidah is the real lever for the survival and steadfastness of insurgents, not only through its port, but also through accessing a number of sea points along the western coast of Yemen, " he said.

Fighting around the Yemen port city of Hodeida has resumed as a Saudi-led coalition tries to retake it from Shiite rebels known as Houthis.

The war in Yemen has displaced 2 million more and helped spawn a cholera epidemic.

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Last week, the United Nations said that in a worst-case scenario as many as 250,000 people could be killed in an offensive against Hodeidah. The UAE also acknowledged "the port remains open and operational".

"They did not encourage us, but did not discourage us", the official said. "The United States does not command, accompany or participate in counter-Houthi operations or any hostilities other than those authorized" against al-Qaida and Islamic State militants in Yemen.

The United States rejected a request from the UAE for intelligence, mine-sweeping and airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) assets for the Hodeidah operation, a UAE official said, speaking on condition of anonymity, while noting congressional opposition.

"Its goal would be to facilitate the safe transport of humanitarian aid to the city's population", the French Defense Ministry said in a statement.

A Yemeni anti-Houthi 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 Hodeidah and combing rural areas for Houthi fighters.

However, the official said France had agreed to provide mine-sweeping support.

The battle for Hodeidah marks a major milestone in a war that has battered Yemen's civilians for years, since the Iran-backed Houthis overthrew the country's government.

After a two-hour UN Security Council meeting on Thursday, the 15-member body urged "all sides to uphold their obligations under global humanitarian law", said Russian UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia, president of the council for June.

"The coalition and Houthi forces, now fighting for Hodeida, have atrocious records abiding by the laws of war", said HRW's Sarah Leah Whitson.

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