AL JAH (Yemen) • Yemeni forces backed by a Saudi-led coalition launched a major offensive yesterday to retake the rebel-held port city of Hodeidah, despite United Nations warnings of a "catastrophic humanitarian impact".
Field commanders said that troops pushed towards Hodeidah airport after pro-government forces received a "green light" from the coalition.
The offensive is controversial because the port is the entry point for 70 per cent of Yemen's imports as the country teeters on the brink of famine. The coalition accuses the Houthi rebels of using the port to secure Iranian arms, notably the ballistic missiles the militants have increasingly fired into Saudi territory.
Coalition sources said the alliance carried out 18 air strikes on Houthi positions on the outskirts of Hodeidah yesterday.
According to medical sources in the province, 22 Houthi fighters were killed by coalition raids, while three pro-government fighters were killed in a rebel ambush south of Hodeidah.
The port city, home to 600,000 people, was captured by the Iran-backed insurgents in 2014 along with the capital Sanaa.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and a bloc of other countries intervened in Yemen the following year with the goal of restoring the government to power.
Yemen's government said on Tuesday that negotiations had failed to force the rebels from Hodeidah, and that a grace period for UN-led peace efforts was over.
"All peaceful and political means of removing the Houthi militia from Hodeidah port have been exhausted," it said in a statement carried by state news agency Saba.
The United Nations on Monday withdrew its international staff from Hodeidah, saying an attack would "impact hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians".
The UN has warned that the likely "catastrophic humanitarian impact" would be worsened due to Hodeidah's key role as an entry point for aid and commercial goods.
"Cutting off imports through Hodeidah for any length of time will put Yemen's population at extreme, unjustifiable risk," Ms Lise Grande, UN humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, said.
The UAE, a pillar of the anti-Houthi coalition, says retaking Hodeidah is necessary to force the rebels to make concessions.
"The current & illegal Houthi occupation of Hodeidah is prolonging the Yemeni war. The liberation of the city & port will create a new reality & bring the Houthis to the negotiations," Emirati State Minister for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash tweeted on Tuesday.
Yemeni forces massing around Hodeidah are a mix of local fighters, those loyal to Yemeni President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi, and supporters of the ex-head of state, Mr Ali Abdullah Saleh.
They are backed on the ground by the UAE, while Saudi Arabia has been leading a campaign of air strikes.