Yemen rebel leader defiant as dozens die in battle for key port

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AL DURAIHIMI, Yemen, June 15, 2018 (BSS/AFP) – Yemen’s rebel chief urged
his forces to fight on against pro-government troops pressing a Saudi-backed
offensive to retake the key aid hub of Hodeida, as the UN called for the Red
sea port to be kept open.

Heavy fighting left 39 people dead on Thursday, a day after the Saudi-led
coalition launched an assault to recapture the city controlled by the Iran-
allied Huthi rebels.

Military sources said coalition gunships pounded rebel positions as
fighting raged several kilometres (miles) from Hodeida airport, south of the
city.

Rebel leader Abdel Malek Al-Houthi urged troops to “confront the forces of
tyranny”, warning they would recapture areas taken by pro-government forces
by “bringing huge numbers (of fighters) to the battle”, according to the
rebels’ Al-Masirah TV.

“The western coast will turn into a big swamp for the invaders,” he added.
The clashes came as the UN Security Council met for urgent talks on the
military operation and called for the port, held by the rebels along with the
capital Sanaa since 2014, to be “kept open”.

The Huthis suffered 30 fatalities on Thursday in the clashes, medical
sources told AFP.

Nine pro-government troops were killed in the same area, the medics said.
Military sources said the deaths were caused by mines and snipers.

An AFP correspondent south of Hodeida airport saw ambulances evacuating
dead and wounded government loyalist fighters as reinforcements headed
towards the front line.

The United Arab Emirates, a driving force in the coalition, said four of
its troops were killed on the first day of the offensive.

The Huthis’ television channel earlier said they had struck a coalition
ship off the coast of Hodeida with two missiles. There was no independent
confirmation of the report.

– Port remains open –

The United Nations has warned against an offensive on Hodeida because the
port serves as the entry point for 70 percent of Yemen’s imports, with the
country already teetering on the brink of famine after three years of war.

On Thursday, authorities said the Red Sea lifeline remained open to
shipping.

“We still have seven ships in the port. The work in the port is normal.
And we have five other ships standing by waiting outside to enter,” port
director Dawood Fadel told AFP.

Yemen’s Foreign Minister Khaled Alyemany said that government forces were
holding off on advancing on the port for now, and “are not planning to
destroy the infrastructure”.

“We are in an area close to the airport, but not to the sea port. The sea
port is totally out of operations, today,” he told reporters on Thursday.

Two Saudi and UAE aid ships were in the waters off Hodeida, coalition
spokesman Turki al-Maliki told Saudi state media.

Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, which intervened against the Huthis in 2015 with the
goal of restoring Yemen’s government to power, have pledged to ensure a
continuous flow of aid to the Arab world’s poorest nation.

Abdullah al-Rabeeah, the head of Saudi Arabia’s King Salman Aid and Relief
Centre, pledged an air, sea and land bridge would be opened “to transport aid
and medical supplies, food, shelter and fuel other basic necessities”.

Capturing Hodeida would be the biggest victory for the Saudi-led coalition
since the start of its costly intervention.

International aid groups cautioned the threat of a major humanitarian
catastrophe was growing as fighting drew closer to Hodeida, with the UN
estimating some 600,000 people live in and around the city.

“As air strikes intensify and front lines move closer to Hodeida city, so
does the very real threat of harm to civilians in Hodeida,” said the
Norwegian Refugee Council’s acting country director Christopher Mzembe.

The group warned of a “high risk” of a fresh cholera outbreak around
Hodeida should water supplies be disrupted.

– ‘Situation must change’ –

During a closed-door meeting, members of the Security Council expressed
their “deep concern about the risks to the humanitarian situation” and called
for Hodeida port to remain open, Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia, who
holds the council presidency, said.

But the council brushed aside a call by Sweden, a non-permanent member, for
a freeze to the military operation to allow time for talks on a rebel
withdrawal from the Red Sea port.

Yemen’s internationally recognised government earlier said negotiations
had failed to force the rebels from Hodeida, and a grace period for UN-led
peace efforts was over.

Nevertheless, the UN envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, has continued to
hold talks on keeping Hodeida open and has urged all sides to exercise
restraint.

But UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash insisted in a
statement that “it is clear that for the UN-led political process to succeed,
the situation on the ground must change”.

Yemen’s Saudi-backed President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi, who has spent much
of the war in exile in Riyadh, on Thursday visited the southern port city of
Aden, where the government set up its base after being ousted from Sanaa.

State-run Saba news agency said the aim of Hadi’s first public visit to
the country in more than a year was to “supervise” the military operations in
Hodeida province.

More than 22 million people in Yemen are in need of aid, including 8.4
million who are at risk of starvation, according to the United Nations, which
considers Yemen to be the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

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