UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs urges a full withdrawal by the rebels from the Red Sea port city in Yemen
Houthi exit from Hodeidah non-negotiable says Gargash
In his strongest warning yet, Dr Anwar Gargash, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, urged Houthi rebels to withdraw “unconditionally” from Hodeidah or face losing all political leverage.
Operation Golden Victory, which began on Wednesday, was being carried out to “help the UN envoy [Martin Griffiths] in his last chance to convince the Houthis to withdraw unconditionally from the city and avoid any confrontation,” Dr Gargash told reporters.
"This is not the time to negotiate,” he said, stressing that the coalition had spent more than a year trying to negotiate third-party control of the port.
"If this does not happen, be assured we are determined to achieve our targets," he said.
Emirati targets consist of wresting the port from Houthi hands, as well as returning the city of Hodeidah to the control of government-aligned forces.
He noted that "the Hodeidah port operation will continue unless rebels withdraw unconditionally".
“This is the time to save their militia and pull out of the city.”
Dr Gargash noted that coalition forces had left the road to Sanaa open, in an effort to encourage a Houthi withdrawal. “The Hodeidah-Sanaa road was kept open for the past few days to allow an escape route – no questions asked.”
The minister explained that the operation’s intent was to bring the Houthis to the negotiating table and ultimately help to find a political solution to the civil war.
“[The operation] will force them [the Houthis] to start a political process, the objective is to use military force to change the calculus and force them on the negotiating table.”
“We are now at the curb of strategic change - we will liberate Hodeidah.”
Dr Gargash added that the coalition was still hopeful of diplomatic efforts. "We are still counting on the UN attempt to pull a rabbit out of a hat."
Martin Griffiths, the UN’s special envoy for Yemen, was scheduled to brief the UN Security Council late on Monday, following two days of talks with the Houthi leadership in Sanaa.
Several previous rounds of peace talks between government-aligned forces and the Houthis, who are backed by Iran, have failed.
The minister described the port as a “major money maker” for the Houthis, and restated the Arab coalition’s belief that Iran is using it to smuggle arms to the group. “Drones, precision weaponry, ballistic missiles - they were not there at the beginning of the war, they weren’t in the Yemeni armoury”.
Dr Gargash also sought to allay fears of an impending humanitarian crisis, highlighting the efforts the UAE and Arab coalition had gone to in making contingency plans, should the flow of aid through the port be disrupted by fighting for the city.
At present, fighting is raging over the airport, on the city’s southern fringe, and the port remains operational, with six ships scheduled to dock today and others registering to unload further aid in the coming days.
“We have planned diligently around the humanitarian side; the operation should allow the port to function as long as we can,” he told reporters.
He added that the coalition feared Houthi militants may have heavily mined the port but said that 100 lorries loaded with aid were on the road to Hodeidah from Mokha and Aden, while seven planes carrying humanitarian relief were ready to deliver as needed. The coalition had also made plans to air drop aid into the city if required, Dr Gargash said.
The port is the entry point for 70 per cent of Yemen’s food and fuel supplies.
Responding to initial reports that the airport had been fully recaptured, he said government-aligned forces were still coming under sniper fire from neighbouring residential areas.
“We don’t want to fire back as we cannot afford to risk the loss of [civilian] lives,” he added.
Dr Gargash estimated there were between 2,000 and 3,000 Houthi fighters, whom he described as “nondescript, and not in uniform”, remaining in the city, and said the coalition confirmed 250 rebel fighters were killed in the first three days of the offensive that began last Wednesday.
He stressed the importance of the Yemeni government’s continued involvement. “Any offer of [a Houthi] withdrawal should be unconditional and should involve the government of Yemen, it should have a role in this, our clear expectation is an unconditional withdrawal.”
Dr Gargash claimed the local population of Hodeidah had rejected the Houthi rule over parts of Yemen. “Hodeidah is actually a city that wants to get rid of the Houthis, it’s 500,000 people, but they don’t comply with Houthis’ radicalised vision.
“We’ve been watching for a year now, we can see that there is a clear rejection of the Houthis and their occupation of Hodeidah.”
The minister denied media reports from France that Paris had deployed soldiers to the ground in support of the Arab-coalition backed forces. However, he said he appreciated French offers to send de-mining teams to Yemen when it may become necessary.