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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 November 2018

Houthi shelling kills children in Hodeidah

The back and forth fighting around the city precedes a major offensive

Yemeni government forces take part in military operations on Houthi positions in the port city of Hodeidah, Yemen, 05 November 2018. EPA
Yemeni government forces take part in military operations on Houthi positions in the port city of Hodeidah, Yemen, 05 November 2018. EPA

Three children were killed on Monday night when Houthi rebels shelled densely populated areas in the north-east of the Red Sea port city of Hodeidah, residents who fled fighting told The National.

In nearly three hours of intense battle between pro-government forces and the Iran-backed Houthis on Monday night, rebel snipers fired from rooftops around the July 7 area of the city while other rebels fired artillery and mortar shells into civilian neighbourhoods.

“Three children were killed by a mortar shell when they were trying to flee out of the city with their mother. The mother was severely injured," a resident said.

Another resident said that Houthi fighters stormed the headquarters of the May 22 Hospital in the centre of the city.

“They stationed their snipers on the rooftop and prevented the patients and staff from leaving, using them as human shields. Among the staff are Egyptian and Pakistani doctors,” the resident said.

Waleed Al Qoudaimi, undersecretary of Hodeidah province, claimed in a tweet on Tuesday that the Houthis moved Iranian experts and top leaders from the city.

There have been days of fighting ahead of what many expect will be a major push to recapture the strategically important port city.

The announcement of peace talks in Sweden in the coming weeks will probably lead to a halt in offensives while a diplomatic solution is sought.

A spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition on Monday said the government alliance had no plans to launch a full offensive to retake the city.

Medics at hospitals in the Hodeidah neighbourhood of Bajil reported they had received the bodies of 49 Houthi rebels on Tuesday morning.

An initial offensive announced in July was put on hold while UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths led efforts to hold the first peace negotiations in two years in Geneva.

The Houthi delegation refused to attend the September talks.

Residents who fled the city said they believed the Houthis had suffered casualties in recent fighting around Hodeidah.

"We have seen many Houthi fighters escaping the city on foot. Hundreds of them fled the frontlines without guns," one resident said.

Forces backed by the Arab Coalition have cut key supply lines into the city in recent months in anticipation of the coming push to recapture the city.

Around the main road to rebel-controlled capital Sanaa, called Kilo 16, there have been heavy clashes as the frontline ebbs and flows.

Hodeidah is a vital lifeline for Houthi rebels and large segments of the Yemeni population as their main port link to the outside world.

While it is a major route for humanitarian aid entering the country, the rebels have used the port to transport weapons and missile parts.

The Arab Coalition has demanded the Houthis hand over the port, which the rebels have refused. They offered to allow the UN to run it under their supervision but insisted they would remain in Hodeidah.

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Since the initial July offensive brought pro-government forces close to the southern edge of the city, Houthis have been building networks of trenches among civilian housing and laying booby-traps and mines.

Tens of thousands of civilians remain in the city and aid agencies, most recently Unicef this week, have called on both sides to avoid a military confrontation.

The UN has warned that half the population of Yemen is on the brink of famine with millions of children facing malnutrition as problems with access and lack of supplies compound a currency crisis in one of the world’s poorest nations.

While the UAE and Saudi Arabia are the two leading nations in the international coalition to back Yemeni President Abdrabu Mansur Hadi, they are also the two leading humanitarian donors to the country providing more than 50 per cent of the funds needed for the UN's humanitarian response plan this year.

But major shortfalls in international assistance remain and hunger and preventable disease are major concerns across much of the country.

There is a renewed focus on the humanitarian situation as the US has called for a halting of hostilities by the end of November.

Yemen's government on Tuesday approved a new budget and tax collection measures aimed at bolstering the central bank as the looming famine threatens millions.

The Cabinet backed the formation of a committee to set the government budget for 2019, state news agency Saba reported.

It also passed a resolution pushing for the collection of owed taxes and customs "on all taxable imports at all land, sea and air ports in liberated areas", or areas under government control.

The Yemeni rial has plunged more than 36 per cent in 2018, despite the promise of a $2 billion deposit in the central bank by Saudi Arabia to save the currency.

The rial's slide has triggered a sharp rise in prices of commodities, especially food and fuel, leaving millions unable to afford basic staples.

Elsewhere in the country, pro-government forces have taken several villages in the interior, pushing Houthi rebels back and recapturing much of the Al Dhalea province.

Sources report that dozens of rebel fighters were killed and more than 30 were captured. Weapons seized from the Houthis included a tank, three artillery pieces, five mortars and large amounts of ammunition.

One of the main points expected to be raised at peace talks in Switzerland will be for the Houthis to hand over heavy weapons and the establishment of a demilitarised buffer zone between Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

"Troops affiliated with the 83rd brigade, supported by fighters from the Security Belt Forces and fighters from the Popular Resistance Forces, carried out a wide-ranging offensive on Monday, scoring a significant victory and sweeping the Houthi militia from villages and areas overlooking the district of Damt,” Saleh Al Mansoob, a journalist covering the battle said.

The military media centre also reported gains in Haja province in north Yemen with the capture of several villages.