BATTLES raged on Monday near a Yemeni port crucial for humanitarian aid, but Saudi Arabia and its allies said they were committed to de-escalating hostilities with rebels as calls for a ceasefire mount.
The UN has appealed for urgent peace talks and warned that an assault on the Red Sea port city of Hodeida would threaten millions of lives.
Yemeni government forces, backed by a regional military coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, say they are now positioned around both the north and south of Hodeida, where clashes have left dozens dead.
The city and its port have been controlled by the Huthis – Iran-backed Shiite insurgents who hail from northern Yemen – since 2014 along with the capital Sanaa.
Rebels and government sources both reported intense fighting in the area on Monday, despite calls by the UN and the US – which provides military support to the Saudi-led camp – for an end to the war.
A source in the Saudi-led coalition said the clashes were not “offensive operations”, adding that the alliance was “committed to keeping the Hodeida port open”.
But three officials with the Yemeni military said fighting continued to flare around Hodeida, whose port is the entry point for three-quarters of the country’s imports.
The head of the Huthi’s revolutionary council, Mohammed Ali al-Huthi, on Monday reported a “military escalation by the coalition,” slamming the operation as “a strenuous attempt to block talks aimed at ending the war and finding peace”.
Yemeni military officials said the coalition had sent fighter jets and Apache attack helicopters on Monday morning to back up troops on the ground around Hodeida.
The officials say government forces are trying to advance on the outskirts of Hodeida with the aim of surrounding the city and cutting off a major rebel supply route.
The coalition source, however, said the government alliance was “committed to de-escalating hostilities in Yemen and strongly supportive of the UN envoy’s political process”.
“If the Huthis fail to show up for peace talks again, this might lead [us] to restart the offensive operation in Hodeida,” the source said.
“The humanitarian situation in Yemen is unacceptable. We are committed to ending the conflict as soon as possible,” they added.
UN envoy Martin Griffiths aims to bring the government of Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi and the Huthis to Sweden for talks this month.
The charity Save the Children said on Monday that the fighting in Hodeida was “deeply concerning” ahead of plans for peace talks, calling for an immediate ceasefire “so more lives aren’t lost”.
“This serious escalation around Yemen’s most important port city could put tens of thousands of children in the line of fire and further choke delivery of food and medicine,” said Tamer Kirolos, the organisation’s Yemen director.
“Save the Children staff in Hodeida reported almost 100 air strikes over the weekend, five times as many as in the whole first week of October,” he said.
The charity estimates an average of 100 Yemeni children die each day from extreme hunger or disease.
Dozens killed in fighting
The Saudi-led alliance had suspended an offensive to take Hodeida in August, ahead of UN efforts to hold negotiations in Geneva which collapsed the following month.
The Huthis refused to travel to Switzerland unless the UN guaranteed both their delegation’s safe return to Sanaa and the evacuation of wounded fighters.
The rebels have regularly targeted Saudi Arabian border towns as well as the capital Riyadh with ballistic missiles.
Saudi Arabia and its allies accuse Iran of using Hodeida port to smuggle missiles to the Huthis, a charge Tehran denies.
Medics at two hospitals in Hodeida province, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said they have counted the bodies of 74 rebels since Sunday and that dozens more were wounded.
Sources at a military hospital in government-held Mokha, south of Hodeida, said 15 troops were killed over the same period.
Saudi Arabia’s state media has reported the deaths of at least six soldiers “along the southern border” in the past week, without giving further details.
Saudi Arabia has faced virulent international criticism for leading an intervention in Yemen in 2015 to bolster Hadi’s government in the face of the Huthi insurgency, and Khashoggi’s murder has put its bombing campaign under fresh scrutiny.