A Saudi-led coalition backing Yemen’s exiled government has begun an assault on the port city of Hodeida, a crucial battle in the three-year conflict it’s feared could push the Arab world’s poorest country into further chaos.
Iranian-aligned Shi’ite rebels known as Houthis and their allies have for years held the Red Sea port, crucial to food supplies in a nation on the brink of famine after years of war.
The battle for Hodeida, if the Houthis don’t withdraw, may also mark the first major street-to-street urban fighting for the Saudi-led coalition, deadly for both combatants and civilians alike.
Before dawn on Wednesday, convoys of vehicles appeared to be heading toward the rebel-held Red Sea city, according to videos posted on social media.
The sound of heavy, sustained gunfire could be clearly heard in the background.
Saudi-owned satellite news channels and later state media announced the battle had begun, citing military sources.
Yemen’s exiled government “has exhausted all peaceful and political means to remove the Houthi militia from the port of Hodeida,” it said in a statement.
“Liberation of the port of Hodeida is a milestone in our struggle to regain Yemen from the militias.”
Forces loyal to Yemen’s exiled government and irregular fighters led by Emirati troops had neared Hodeida in recent days.
The port is about 150 km southwest of Sanaa, Yemen’s capital held by Shi’ite rebels known as Houthis.
Emirati Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash earlier told French newspaper Le Figaro the deadline for a withdrawal from Hodeida expired early Wednesday morning.
The United Nations and other aid groups had already pulled their international staff ahead of the rumored assault.