Yemen: a fight for the city of Hodeidah looms
Houthis are digging in for a fight and placing mines to prevent civilians from leaving the city. Ali Mahmood reports from Hodeidah
It is the battle that could speed an end to the war in Yemen. Long a stronghold for Houthi rebels, Hodeidah’s urban areas may become their last bastion.
Having lost the city's airport, the Houthis are taking increasingly brutal measures against civilians as well as making desperate attempts to lure coalition forces into a fight.
Ibrahim Al Theeb, a commander with the Yemen government-aligned Tihama Resistance, told The National that the Houthis have strengthened their defences within Hodeidah.
"They have dug trenches and hideouts among civilian residences and are trying to pull the Arab-led Coalition forces into the city," he said.
The taking of the airport by the coalition on Tuesday appears to have sped a Houthi retreat.
And the cutting off of roads that the rebels long used to send supplies and, more recently, reinforcements into Hodeidah is adding to the prospects of a final battle.
Yemen's pro-government forces, backed by the coalition, have yet to advance on the city itself.
"Instead the coalition has successfully executed deep penetration operations to close the supply routes and are besieging the rebels until they surrender," Mr Al Theeb said.
But the fear of a final military showdown – their leader has repeatedly said they will continue to fight – has seen thousands of families leave the city.
"The rebels tried to prevent us fleeing our houses, using us as human shields," resident Mohammed Al Maghasi, who recently managed to escape, told The National.
"For over a month, the Houthis have been moving their vehicles, artillery and rocket launchers locally to try and avoid being struck by the coalition jets.
"They have been digging trenches and building fortifications along the street of my house and they are deploying snipers on rooftops."
Mr Al Maghasi is now safely in Al Khoukha, a town south of Hodeidah that was liberated in December.
But the intimidation tactics he witnessed included the Houthis sending members of their all-female brigade – called the Descendants of Zainab, named after the Prophet’s daughter – into people's homes.
"They tried to stir us to fight, or at least stay in our homes," Mr Al Maghasi said. "But when we urged them to move their artillery away from the populated neighbourhoods they gave us the hard face and told us to keep silent, saying if we don't we are enemies and mercenaries cooperating with the coalition states."
Some Houthi fighters simply let their weapons reflect their disapproval.
"Whenever they see a family leaving they shoot randomly so that the family gives us, and returns indoors," Mr Al Maghasi said. "A mother with her children was trying to flee but the rebels fired. The mother was killed and a daughter wounded," he added.
Iranian involvement laid bare
Dr Mansour Al Qudasi, head of the media department at Hodeidah University, told The National the Houthis were besieging residents of the Al Yemen neighbourhood to the west of the city.
There in recent days, the rebels are also digging trenches. Their excavations damaged underground pipes, leading to water supplies being cut. Their defensive steps are designed to prevent people from leaving as well as block any advance from troops.
"They planted thousands of landmines in the openings leading into the neighbourhood. It stops people fleeing. They want human shields."
The rebels have also taken prisoners, Dr Al Qudasi said. "Many senior academic staff from the university have been forcibly disappeared."
After days of fighting, the coalition confirmed on Wednesday it was in full control of the airport.
"The airport was completely cleared, Thank God, and is under control," coalition commander for the Red Sea coast, Brigadier Abdul Salaam Al Shehi said in an interview.
Many Houthi fighters had fled in the final phase of the battle, including field commanders. Mr Al Shehi said at least 250 Houthis had been killed in fighting for the airport and a further 87 taken prisoner.
The intense clashes of the day before were replaced by calm at the airport although coalition Apache helicopters and warplanes launched dozens of attacks on Houthi pockets of resistance nearby. Ground forces were combing the huge airstrip for any remaining rebel fighters.
The pro-Yemen government Al Amalikah brigade was positioned at the front of the airport paused early Wednesday but were preparing for a renewed offensive to take control of a key supply route named KILO 16 east of Hodeidah.
At the same time, tonnes of UAE supplied aid is lining the road toward the front line, ready to be delivered at the earliest opportunity to those trapped in the city.
However the struggles of those who left Hodeidah continued to emerge. A group of Somali and Ethiopian refugees who reached Mocha, another port city, arrived hungry and exhausted.
The men told The National that they had earlier been chased by a group of rebels who tried to recruit them. They said the Houthis had given them a stark choice: accept food to fight or dig trenches, or be shot dead for fleeing.
Updated: June 21, 2018 09:47 AM