AL DURAIHMI (Yemen) • Yemeni pro-government forces, backed by Saudi Arabia, battled Houthi rebels around the key port city of Hodeida yesterday as a top United Nations envoy held crisis talks with the insurgents in the capital.
Saudi Arabia and its allies in a regional military coalition launched an offensive last Wednesday aimed at retaking the Red Sea city of Hodeida, home to the country's most valuable port which is controlled by the Iran-backed Houthis.
The UN has warned that the offensive could spark a fresh humanitarian crisis in a country already hit by war and impending famine, and sent its top envoy for Yemen to the capital Sanaa in a bid to come to a solution with the rebels.
More than 70 per cent of imports to all of Yemen pass through the docks of the rebel-held Hodeida port.
Yemen's military forces have closed in on areas south and west of the port, pushing closer to an airport just south of the docks, sources in the army said.
The army last Saturday claimed it had seized the defunct Hodeida airport, which has been in Houthi hands since 2014.
The Shi'ite rebels, however, denied the claim in a statement on their Saba news agency yesterday.
They have also reported Saudi air strikes on Houthi outposts across Hodeida.
The highway between Hodeida and the government-held port of Mokha was cut off last Friday in battles between the two warring sides, disrupting precious supply lines to the military.
The UN and relief organisations have warned that an all-out assault on Hodeida by the Saudi-led coalition, which commands a massive joint air force, would put hundreds of thousands of people at risk.
The fighting is already nearing densely populated residential areas, rights groups have warned, and aid distributions have been suspended in the west of the city.
At least 139 combatants have been killed since the launch of the operation last Wednesday, according to medical and military sources, most of them rebels.
The Houthi rebels drove Yemen's government out of Sanaa in 2014, pushing President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi into exile and sparking an intervention by Saudi Arabia and its allies the following year.
The Saudi-led coalition earlier this year imposed a near-total blockade on Hodeida port on allegations that it served as a major conduit for arms smuggling to the rebels by Riyadh's regional arch-rival Iran.
The potential capture of Hodeida would be the coalition's biggest victory of the war so far.
Rebel leader Abdul Malik al-Houthi has urged his forces to put up fierce resistance and turn the region into a "quagmire" for the Saudi-led coalition troops.
The UN envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths arrived in rebel-held Sanaa last Saturday for a second round of talks since taking the post in February.
The Houthis have regularly accused the UN, which recognises the Hadi government, of bias.
Multiple rounds of UN-brokered talks between the rebels and the Hadi government have failed to find a solution to the conflict.
Mr Griffith, whose talks in Sanaa have been kept under wraps, was believed to be pressing the Houthis to cede control of the Red Sea port to a UN-supervised committee that would allow deliveries of commercial goods and aid to continue to flow.
Last Saturday, he called for restraint and said he was in contact with all the warring parties in a bid to halt the fighting.
The Yemen war has claimed some 10,000 lives since the Saudi-led coalition intervened in 2015.