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Yemen forces launch assault on rebel-held port city

AFP/File / NABIL HASSAN A pro-government Yemeni soldier fires a machine gun on June 7, 2018 near the town of Al Jah southeast of Hodeida

Yemeni forces backed by a Saudi-led coalition launched a major offensive on Wednesday to retake the rebel-held port city of Hodeida, despite UN warnings of a "catastrophic humanitarian impact".

Field commanders told AFP that troops pushed towards Hodeida airport after Yemeni pro-government forces received a "green light" from the coalition.

The offensive is controversial because the port serves as the entry point for 70 percent of Yemen's imports as the country teeters on the brink of famine.

The coalition accuses the Huthi rebels of using the port to secure Iranian arms, notably the ballistic missiles the militants have increasingly fired into Saudi territory.

AFP / AFP Yemen

Coalition sources said the alliance carried out 18 air strikes on Huthi positions on the outskirts of Hodeida on Wednesday.

According to medical sources in the province, 22 Huthi fighters were killed by coalition raids, while three pro-government fighters were killed in a rebel ambush south of Hodeida.

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 Hodeida, and that a grace period for UN-led peace efforts was over.

"All peaceful and political means of removing the Huthi militia from Hodeida port have been exhausted," the government said in a statement carried by Yemen's state news agency Saba.

AFP / NABIL HASSAN A pro-government Yemeni soldier looks through binoculars on June 7, 2018, near the city of Al Jah in Hodeida province, 50 kilometres (30 miles) from the port city of Hodeida

The United Nations on Monday withdrew its international staff from Hodeida, 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 Hodeida's key role as an entry point for aid and commercial goods.

"Cutting off imports through Hodeida for any length of time will put Yemen's population at extreme, unjustifiable risk," Lise Grande, UN humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, said.

- A new reality -

The UAE, a pillar of the anti-Huthi coalition, says retaking Hodeida is necessary to force the rebels to make concessions.

"The current & illegal Huthi occupation of Hodeida is prolonging the Yemeni war. The liberation of the city & port will create a new reality & bring the Huthis to the negotiations," Emirati State Minister for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash tweeted Tuesday.

Ahead of the offensive, the UAE sought to project unity with the Yemeni government after months of strained relations -- most recently over its military activities on the Yemeni island of Socotra.

Yemeni President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi held rare talks in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday night with Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed.

"Our destiny and that of Yemen will continue to be one, and our shared pain and bloodshed will draw us closer," the UAE strongman told Hadi, Yemen's state news agency Saba reported.

Hadi, who lives in exile in Riyadh, was also seeking to repair relations with Abu Dhabi, which has sidelined him over the past year by backing rival forces.

"In the meeting, President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi hailed the positions of the UAE leadership ... in defending a common destiny," Saba said.

Yemeni forces massing around Hodeida are a mix of local fighters, those loyal to President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi, and supporters of the ex-head of state, Ali Abdullah Saleh.

They are backed on the ground by the UAE, while Saudi Arabia has been leading a campaign of air strikes.

Analysts say anti-rebel forces are determined to drive the Huthis from the key port, having failed to score any major victories since the first year of the war.

- Children in the crossfire -

The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) has raised alarm over the plight of Hodeida's 300,000 children and the risk that drinking water supplies will be disrupted.

"UNICEF has pre-prepositioned supplies in Hodeida: over 20,000 basic hygiene kits (one kit per family). 40,000 additional kits are in the pipeline. We hope we don't need to use them," UNICEF Yemen representative Meritxell Relano said on her Twitter account.

The Huthi leadership on Tuesday called on the international community to "pressure a halt to the escalation", warning an assault on Hodeida would put Red Sea navigation at risk.

Saudi Arabia's ambassador in Washington Khaled bin Salman also on Tuesday said the retaking of Hodeida was critical, tweeting that the Iran-backed rebels posed a "growing threat" to maritime security.

On Wednesday, the Huthis said they targeted a coalition warship off the coast of Hodeida with two missiles, with rebel outlet Al-Masirah claiming a direct hit.

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