ADEN • Forces from an alliance of Arab states seized the entrance to the airport in Yemen's main port city yesterday, in an offensive against the Iran-aligned Houthi movement that the United Nations fears could trigger a famine imperilling millions of lives.
The swift advance was an important early success for the Saudi-and Emirati-led alliance, which launched the operation in Hodeidah three days ago and says it can seize the city quickly enough to avoid interrupting aid to millions facing starvation.
"We saw the resistance forces in the square at the north-western entrance to the airport," said a Hodeidah resident, referring to Yemeni allies of the Saudi-led coalition. Two Yemeni military officials allied to the coalition confirmed it.
Alliance-backed Yemeni forces tweeted that they had also seized the airport's southern entrance, advancing down a main road towards the seaport.
Residents of Hodeidah, which is controlled by the Iran-aligned Houthi movement, said battles had been fought in the Manzar neighbourhood, which abuts the wall surrounding the airport. Many Manzar residents fled to the city centre.
"There have been terrifying bombing runs since the morning, when they struck Houthi positions near the airport," fish vendor Ammar Ahmed said yesterday. "We live days of terror that we have never known before."
Apache attack helicopters hovered over Manzar, firing at Houthi snipers and fighters in schools and other buildings, said another Hodeidah resident, who asked not to be named. Houthi forces had entered homes overlooking the main road to go onto the roofs.
Streets elsewhere in the city were empty despite the Eid al-Fitr holiday marking the end of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting.
The coalition of Arab states has battled with little success for three years to defeat the Houthis, who control the capital Sanaa, the main port at Hodeidah and most of Yemen's populated areas. The assault on Hodeidah is the alliance's first attempt to capture such a well-defended major city.
"We are at the edges of the airport and are working to secure it now," the Arab coalition said. "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.
The assault is a dramatic gamble by the Arab states, which insist that they can swiftly capture the port without a major disruption to aid supplies to a country already experiencing the world's most pressing humanitarian crisis.
The UN, which has failed to find a diplomatic path to head off the assault, fears it will cut off the only lifeline for most Yemenis. Some 22 million depend on aid and 8.4 million are at immediate risk of starvation.
"I urge all parties to the conflict to meet their obligations to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure and take active steps to respect international humanitarian law," Mr David Beasley, executive director of the UN World Food Programme, said in a statement.
Capturing Hodeidah would give the Arab coalition the upper hand in the war, in which it has fought since 2015 to restore an exiled government driven out by the Houthis. But a successful operation would require swiftly capturing a city of 600,000 people, without inflicting damage that would destroy the port.
Riyadh and Abu Dhabi say the Houthis are a proxy force for Iran, their regional arch-rival. The Houthis, from a Shi'ite minority that ruled a 1,000-year Yemeni kingdom until 1962, deny being Teheran's pawns and say they took power in a popular revolt and are defending Yemen from invasion by its neighbours.