Pro-government forces make rapid progress towards rebel-held city from the south
Military coalition confirms reaching boundary of Hodeidah's airport
Yemeni pro-government forces led by Emirati troops advanced to the perimeter of Hodeidah airport on Friday, making rapid gains in offensive to retake Hodeidah city and its vital port from Houthi rebels.
"We are at the edges of the airport and are working to secure it now," the Arab military coalition said in a statement to Reuters. "We will soon enter the next phase of operations to press the Houthis on multiple fronts, including at coastal points, at other edges of the city and, with the local resistance, from within the city itself.
"Operational priority is to avoid civilian casualties, maintain the flow of humanitarian aid, and allow for the UN to press the Houthis to evacuate the city," it said.
Hodeidah residents reported fierce clashes in the Manzar neighbourhood, which abuts the wall surrounding the airport.
Apache attack helicopters hovered over Manzar, firing at Houthi snipers and fighters in schools and other buildings, said a resident who asked not to be identified. Houthi forces had entered homes overlooking the main road to go on to the roofs. Dozens of Manzar residents fled to the city centre on motorcycles, the resident said.
The rapid advance followed heavy overnight clashes with the Iran-backed rebels. Pro-government forces were two kilometres south of the rebel-held airport on Thursday.
Fighter jets from the Saudi-led coalition pounded coastal areas south-east of the city as residents gathered at dawn in an open area for Eid Al Fitr prayers, Reuters reported.
Coalition jets also struck the main road linking Hodeidah to the capital Sanaa to block reinforcements to the Houthis.
The military operation to liberate Hodeidah launched on Wednesday is the biggest so far in Yemen's three-year-old civil war. The Arab coalition supporting Yemen's government, which includes the UAE, has deployed thousands of troops to support local forces in the offensive.
Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Dr Anwar Gargash said on Friday that retaking Hodeidah port from the Houthis would mean the rebels would no longer be able to impose their will on Yemen and would force them to negotiating table.
In a series of tweets, Dr Gargash pointed out that the Houthis had refused for three years to seriously engage in peace talks.
"If they keep Hodeidah and its revenues and its strategic location, the war will last a long time and the suffering of the Yemeni people," Dr Gargash said.
"This deadlock must end. It is clear that for the UN-led political process to succeed, the situation on the ground must change," he said.
"Depriving the Houthis of their control of Hodeidah port, at the Yemeni government’s request, means that the Houthis will no longer be able to impose their will at the barrel of a gun.
"They will be one Yemeni group among others, jointly negotiating to decide the future of their country. That is the goal of our operations in Hodeidah."
Writing in Britain's Telegraph newspaper, Dr Gargash said the increased rebel use of "sophisticated Iranian missile and drone attacks on Saudi Arabia in recent months" had made it "abundantly clear that the UN’s Verification and Inspection Mechanism for Yemen has failed to staunch the flow of arms and material to Iran’s proxy forces in Yemen".
Besides blocking the rebels weapons supply, he said re-establishing government control of Hodeidah will have an "immediate and profound positive impact, as it will open up a corridor for humanitarian assistance that has been impeded by Houthi rebels for two years".
The bulk of Yemen's food and aid enters through Hodeidah, raising fears that the military operation to retake the port could worsen the humanitarian crisis in the country, where more than 8 million people are facing starvation.
The UN Security Council called for the port to be kept open after a meeting on Thursday to discuss the assault on Hodeidah.
The UAE Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the UN Lana Nusseibeh said the offensive was a "deliberate, carefully prepared and executed operation" and that coalition forces, under the direction of the Yemeni government, would advance in a "a calibrated, gradual" way.
"We are facing a small, fanatical group of hardened fighters armed by Iran," Ms Nusseibeh told a press briefing at the UN that was also attended by Saudi Arabia's UN Ambassador Abdallah Al Mouallimi, the UAE Minister of State for International Co-operation Reem Al Hashimy and the Yemeni Foreign Minister Khalid Al Yamani.
Ms Nusseibeh said the offensive to oust the Houthi rebels was "a critical step toward achieving a political solution to this conflict because we know there is no military solution".
"At every step along the way the Houthis will be given opportunities to retreat, to disarm and to come back to the negotiating process," she said.
Mr Al Mouallimi said two ships from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, each carrying 5,000 tonnes of food, were waiting to dock at Hodeidah as part of the coalition's effort to ensure "abundant humanitarian supplies" to the city during the military offensive.
"Our desire in Hodeidah is not to infuriate the Houthis or to kill as many of them as we possibly can," he said. "To the contrary, we have allowed them safe passage to the north of the city if they want to drop their arms and leave."
Despite heavy losses in recent weeks, the Houthi leader Abdulmalik Al Houthi issued a message of defiance on the rebels' Al Masirah TV channel on Thursday, calling on people in provinces under Houthi control to send their sons to join the rebels fighting in Hodeidah.
Yemen's President Abdrabu Mansur Hadi, who was forced into exile in Saudi Arabia after the Houthis seized Sanaa in late 2014, returned to the interim capital Aden on Thursday to "supervise" the military operations in Hodeidah, the state-run Saba news agency said.