0520 GMT June 23, 2018
A Saudi-led coalition geared up on Tuesday for an assault on Yemen’s main port, preparing to launch by far the biggest battle of a three-year-old war between an alliance of Arab states and Yemen despite the UN’s warning that the assault could cost up to 250,000 lives.
The United Arab Emirates, one of the main members of the Western-backed alliance, has set a Tuesday deadline for the Houthi Ansarullah movement to withdraw from the port of Hodeidah or face an assault.
It would be the first time since they joined the war on behalf of Yemen’s exiled government that the foreign armies have attempted to capture such a well-defended major city.
Hodeidah, Yemen’s biggest port and the only port controlled by the Houthis, serves as the lifeline for the majority of Yemen’s population, which lives in Houthi-ruled territory.
The United Nations said it was engaged in “intense” shuttle diplomacy between the Houthis and coalition leaders Saudi Arabia and the UAE to avert the attack.
It estimates 600,000 people live in the area, and in a worst-case scenario a battle could cost up to 250,000 lives, as well as cutting off millions from aid and supplies.
Emirati-led troops have advanced along the southwestern coast to the outskirts of Hodeidah under a coalition strategy to box in the Houthis in the capital Sana’a and choke off their supply lines to force them to the negotiating table.
Yemen has been racked by violence since 2014. The conflict escalated in 2015 when Saudi Arabia and its allies launched a devastating air campaign aimed at undermining the Houthi Ansarullah movement and reinstating former president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, a staunch ally of Riyadh.
European donor governments warned aid groups in Yemen on Saturday that “a military assault now looks imminent,” according to a message seen by Reuters. It said: “The Emiratis have informed us today that they will now give a 3-day grace period for the UN (and their partners) to leave the city.”
The UAE Foreign Ministry and government communication office did not immediately respond to Reuters’ requests for comment.
Officials said Monday that the United Nations and the International Committee for the Red Cross withdrew their staff members from the besieged Yemeni port city, fearing that the attack by forces led by the United Arab Emirates was imminent, nytimes.com reported.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said last week it had pulled 71 foreign staff members out of Yemen.
Saudi Arabia’s Western allies, under increasing scrutiny for selling arms to the states fighting in Yemen, have not publicly made clear whether they approve of an assault on Hodeidah.
“We are, at the present moment, in intense consultation,” the United Nations Secretary General António Guterres said Monday. “There is a lull in the fighting to allow for them, and I hope that it will be possible to avoid a battle for Hodeidah.”
In Washington, bipartisan efforts were underway in the US Senate to warn the Emirates and Saudi Arabia that a military assault on the port city could result in the United States cutting off funding for aerial refueling, which has been crucial to the Saudi air campaign there.
Although the US administration has developed close ties with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, many members of Congress and international diplomats blame the two countries for exacerbating what the United Nations says is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis with indiscriminate attacks that have been responsible for thousands of civilian deaths.
An attack on Al Hodeidah would “plunge the country further into humanitarian disaster and risk opening another power vacuum for Al-Qaeda to fill,” said Representative Ted Lieu, a Democrat of California and a former air force lawyer. “If they cross that red line, the US will have a strategic, moral and legal obligation to cut off all support for the coalition in Yemen.”
Riyadh says the Houthis use the port to smuggle Iranian-made weapons, including missiles that have been launched at Saudi cities – accusations that were denied by Yemen and Iran.
Houthi leader Abdul Malik al-Houthi has warned the group will attack oil tankers in the event of an assault on Hodeidah.
The coalition says one of the main justifications for its intervention is to protect Red Sea shipping, which brings Middle East oil and Asian goods to Europe through the Suez Canal.