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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 16 November 2018

Fierce fighting around Hodeidah as government forces launch new offensive

Thousands of troops positioned around the city in the past week

Yemeni pro-government forces advance towards Hodeidah airport during an offensive in June 2018. Arab 24 via Reuters
Yemeni pro-government forces advance towards Hodeidah airport during an offensive in June 2018. Arab 24 via Reuters

Pro-government forces fought Yemen's Houthi rebels near the port city of Hodeidah for a second day on Saturday after capturing new ground overnight.

There were fierce clashes in Kaws Al Naser near the Kilo 16 area on Saturday morning but neither side made gains, military sources told The National.

The latest battle for the crucial rebel-held city was launched after government forces and the Saudi-led military coalition positioned thousands of troops around the city over the past week. A spokesman for government forces said the offensive would continue until Hodeidah was retaken.

The Al Amalikah Brigades were holding positions captured on Friday night against attacks by the Iran-backed rebels, who brought in hundreds of fighters from Amran province in civilian vehicles along the road linking Hodeidah and Hajjah province to the north, the sources said.

Three members of the brigade's media arm were injured by a mortar shell, two of them seriously, while reporting from the Kilo 16 area.

The Al Amalikah Brigades backed by UAE forces, including artillery units, launched their offensive from the south and east of the city on Friday, supported by air strikes from F-16 fighters and Apache helicopters, Saber Abdulwahed, a journalist covering the battle for the Yemeni force, told The National.

They passed the Kilo 16 area and reached Kaws Al Naser, where coalition Apaches carried out more 30 than air strikes on Friday, Abdulwahed said.

Residents of Hodeidah told The National the Houthis burnt tyres to reduce visibility for coalition aircraft and blocked the road linking the city centre to Kilo 16 with empty containers from the port.

They said there were fierce clashes since Friday morning along the road leading to the University of Hodeidah, the airport ring road, Al Rabsa neighbourhood and Al Thawra hospital, which the rebels had turned into a military site.

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The renewed push to retake Hodeidah, the entry point for about 70 per cent of Yemen's food and aid imports, comes amid growing international pressure for a new round of peace talks to end the three-year-old conflict.

On Friday the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called on both sides to stop fighting and engage in good faith negotiations, without preconditions, with UN special envoy Martin Griffiths.

“The international community has a real opportunity to halt the senseless cycle of violence and to prevent an imminent catastrophe,” Mr Guterres said. "The time to act is now."

His remarks came just days after the US, which supports the Saudi-led coalition, called for a ceasefire in Yemen and for peace talks to begin in November.

On Tuesday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called for a "cessation of hostilities" and Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said the truce should happen within 30 days and lead to UN-led talks.

Mr Griffiths, who met US officials in Washington recently, plans to convene the talks in Sweden.

"There is now an opportunity for peace in Yemen," Mr Guterres said on Friday. "This building wave of momentum must be seized."

A coalition-backed campaign to liberate the city was suspended this year to facilitate UN peace efforts but the rebels refused to attend talks held in Geneva in September.

A spokesman for the Al Amalikah Brigades said the new offensive would continue until the city was retaken from the rebels.

"The Houthis have wreaked havoc in the port city and it is time to sweep them out to end the suffering of the civilians and to cut their supplies, which still come from Iran through the port of Hodeidah," Col Mamoon Al Mahjami told The National.

The rebels are holding 16 ships carrying food and fuel in Hodeidah port and the smaller Saleef port, Al Arabiya news channel reported, citing the Centre for Comprehensive Humanitarian Operations in Yemen.

Their cargo includes medicines, medical equipment, maize, soy, wheat, flour, sugar and liquefied gas, the report said.

The Yemen war began when the Houthis invaded the capital Sanaa in September 2014 and toppled the internationally recognised government of President Abdrabu Mansur Hadi. The Saudi-led coalition entered the war in March 2015 to support the government at Mr Hadi's request.

The conflict has killed more than 10,000 people, destroyed health and public services, and created the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

The UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock warned last week that there was "clear and present danger of an imminent and great big famine engulfing Yemen" that could affect 14 million people — half of the country's population.