Fighting has broken out between residents and Houthi rebels in Hodeidah after the insurgents began using civilians as human shields against Yemeni government forces closing in on the city, an officer told The National on Thursday.
Clashes between the residents and rebels have been reported in Mousa bin Noseir Street and Sanaa Street, said Colonel Mamoon Al Mahjami of the Al Amalikah Brigades, one of the government forces leading the push into the key port city.
The Iran-backed rebels have suffered severe losses in recent days as government troops backed by the Saudi-led Arab Coalition resumed ground operations and air strikes following the rebel refusal to attend UN-mediated peace talks in Geneva last week.
"Ninety per cent of their military bases are destroyed and now they have started guerrilla warfare in the streets of Hodeidah," Col Al Mahjami said. "They have besieged hundreds of families who tried to flee the city to use them as human shields. We are striving to ensure safe routes for such people to be evacuated but the rebels target any family trying to flee."
Hodeidah resident Sameer Al Khdhar said cells of resistance to the Houthi occupation had begun co-ordinating with the Al Amalikah forces to attack the rebels inside the city. Although they lacked enough weapons and ammunition, they started fighting the rebels on Wednesday, he said.
"This caused confusion among the rebels so they began rounding up civilians," he said.
Waleed Al Qoudaimi, the under-secretary of Hodeidah province, reported on Wednesday that young residents were battling rebels on the city's Mousa bin Noseir Street and Jamal Street.
"I said previously that the Houthis have no social incubation in Hodeidah, our city is going to be cleansed from them soon," he wrote on Twitter.
An official of the Tihamah Resistance, a local militia, told The National earlier this year that it had sleeper cells in the city to rise up against the rebels as soon as pro-government forces approached.
The intensification in fighting triggered a warning from the United Nations, which said the situation in Hodeidah had deteriorated dramatically in recent days.
“Parties to the conflict are obliged to do absolutely everything possible to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure and ensure people have access to the aid they are entitled to and need to survive,” said Lise Grande, the UN humanitarian co-ordinator for Yemen.
Hodeidah port is main entry point for food imports and humanitarian aid into Yemen, where the three-year civil war has created what the world's most severe humanitarian crisis.
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Col Al Mahjami said the Houthis had become increasingly desperate after the Amalikah Brigades seized large sections of the main road linking Hodeidah and the rebel-held capital Sanaa, cutting off their supplies and reinforcements.
There were fierce clashes at the Kilo 16, Kilo 10 and Kilo 7 sections of the route as the government forces advanced on the city, with more than 70 rebel fighters killed since Wednesday, he said.
"The rebels abandoned their wounded fighters — they just took their guns and left them screaming. We took dozens of them to our mobile clinics to be treated."
Meanwhile, raids by coalition aircraft restricted rebel movements and prevented reinforcements from arriving from the north, Col Al Mahjami said. "Three Houthi armoured vehicles carrying new fighters to prop up the collapsing ranks of the rebels in Kilo 16 and Kilo 10 areas were all destroyed and all the fighters on them were killed, including high-ranking leaders."
After losing the Kilo 16 intersection, the Houthis resorted to shelling populated areas with mortars while retreating into Hodeidah city, where they have posted snipers on rooftops and commandeered residences as outposts, he said.
"When we took over Kilo 16, the Houthis suffered an unexpected fatal blow. Cutting their main supply route drove them crazy.
"They fired into the yard of a dairy plant in the area to stop the workers from fleeing the fighting. The workers were evacuated by us after our forces advanced into the area around the factory," Col Al Mahjami said.
"People celebrated as our forces approached Kilo 16. They were so happy — old women were roaming the checkpoints and the places where our forces deployed, bringing them water and milk. We distributed food baskets, tents and other aid to families who had refused to evacuate the area.
The Amalikah Brigades are also advancing on Hodeidah along the coast from the south, and are preparing to take the Corniche after capturing the city's university earlier this week.