ADEN (Reuters) - Arab warplanes and warships pounded Houthi positions in Yemen’s Hodeidah on Thursday as a Saudi-led alliance tried to seize the main port in the largest battle of a war that has created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
Apache attack helicopters bombed a strip of coastal territory near the city’s airport, two residents told Reuters on the second day of the battle.
“The fighting is getting close to the al-Manzar area near the airport and people are fleeing in fear,” said Mohammed Abdullah, an employee of the Houthi administration in the city.
“My family left for Sanaa yesterday but I stayed behind alone to protect our home from looters,” he said.
Coalition forces were just 2 km from the airport, the Emirati ambassador to the United Nations, Obeid Salem Al Zaabi, told reporters in Geneva.
Coalition-backed Yemeni forces took control of al-Durayhmi in southern Hodiedah province, an armed forces faction said in a statement.
The United Nations 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.
A U.N. diplomatic source said five commercial vessels were offloading at the port.
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 situation is dire and we don’t know how it will end,” said Khadija, a teacher in Hodeidah.
The Iran-aligned Houthis control Sanaa 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.
Ousted President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who lives in exile in Saudi Arabia, arrived in Aden on Thursday in his first trip to the southern city in over a year. Aden has served as his government’s temporary capital since 2015.
“Our imminent victory in Hodeidah will be the ... gateway to retrieving our kidnapped capital and exerting the influence of the government over every inch of the country,” he said.
Despite strong U.S. ties with coalition members, particularly the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, the war in Yemen faces strong opposition in the U.S. Congress.
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.
However, the official said France had agreed to provide mine-sweeping support for the operation. The official said UAE intelligence indicated that Houthis had mined the port.
A French defence ministry spokeswoman said she could not immediately provide comment. The Pentagon declined comment.
Capturing Hodeidah, the Houthis’ only port, would give the coalition the upper hand in the war, in which neither side has made much progress for years. The Houthis generate $30 million to $40 million a month in revenue from the port, the UAE official estimated.
The United States and other Western powers provide arms and intelligence to the Arab alliance and human rights groups criticise them over the airstrikes, which have led to hundreds of civilian deaths.
At the same time, the United Nations says 22 million Yemenis need humanitarian aid and the number at risk of starvation could more than double to more than 18 million by year end unless access improves.
The world body said it was still bringing aid: “We are there and delivering, we are not leaving Hodeidah,” U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Yemen Lise Grande said.
The Arab states say they must recapture Hodeidah to deprive the Houthis of their main source of income and prevent them from bringing in missiles.
Dozens of missiles have been fired at Saudi Arabia in recent months.
Arab diplomats say there are plans to prevent the battle from worsening a humanitarian disaster and they will be able to improve food supplies once they control the port.
Ali al-Ahmed, the Emirati ambassador to Germany, told Reuters there were 60,000 tonnes of humanitarian aid ready on ships and trucks to move into the region once the fighting died down. He said it would take Arab forces about 72 hours to clear mines from Hodeidah’s port or airport once it captures them.
“It’s very important for our credibility to make sure that people in need get the help they need,” he said.
The Arab League said it supported the coalition especially in Hodeidah. The Gulf initiative, national dialogue and U.N. Security Council decisions are the basis for a political settlement, it said after an emergency meeting in Cairo.
The war in Yemen is one of several regional conflicts that pit allies of the Sunni Muslim Arab states against forces aligned to Shi’ite Iran. The Houthis, from a Shi’ite minority, deny being Iran’s pawns and say they took power in a popular revolt and are defending Yemen from invasion by its neighbours.
After a two-hour U.N. Security Council meeting, the 15-member body urged “all sides to uphold their obligations under international humanitarian law,” said Russian U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia, president of the council for June.
“They were united in their deep concern about the risks to the humanitarian situation and reiterated their call for the ports of Hodeidah and Salif to be kept open,” Nebenzia told reporters.
Houthi leader Mohammed Ali al-Houthi has blamed the West for the assault: “The British told us a week ago that the Emiratis and the Saudis had told them they would not enter the battle of Hodeidah without their agreement and assistance.”
A Houthi statement warned commercial ships in the Red Sea, one of the world’s most important trade routes, to stay 20 miles from coalition warships or potentially face attack.
Additional reporting by Andrea Shalal in Berlin, Tom Miles in Geneva, Michelle Nichols at the United Nations, Phil Stewart and Yara Bayoumy in Washington, and Sarah Dadouch in Riyadh; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous and Matthew Mpoke Bigg; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Cynthia Osterman