DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — A Saudi-led coalition backing Yemen's exiled government began an assault Wednesday morning on Yemen's port city of Hodeida, a crucial battle in the 3-year-old conflict that aid agencies warned could push the Arab world's poorest country into further chaos.
Iranian-aligned Shiite rebels known as Houthis and their allies for years have held the Red Sea port, crucial to food supplies in a nation on the brink of famine after years of war. The battle for Hodeida, if the Houthis don't withdraw, also may mark the first major street-to-street urban fighting for the Saudi-led coalition, which can be deadly for both combatants and civilians alike.
Before dawn Wednesday, convoys of vehicles appeared to be heading toward the rebel-held city, according to videos posted on social media. The sound of heavy, sustained gunfire clearly could be heard in the background.
Saudi-owned satellite news channels and later state media announced the battle had begun, citing military sources.
Yemen's exiled government "has exhausted all peaceful and political means to remove the Houthi militia from the port of Hodeida," it said in a statement. "Liberation of the port of Hodeida is a milestone in our struggle to regain Yemen from the militias."
The Houthi-run Al Masirah satellite news channel later acknowledged the offensive, claiming rebel forces hit a Saudi coalition ship near Hodeida with two land-to-sea missiles. Houthi forces have fired such missiles at ships previously.
"The targeted ship was carrying troops prepared for a landing on the coast of Hodeida," the channel said. The Saudi-led coalition did not immediately acknowledge the incident.
Forces loyal to Yemen's exiled government and irregular fighters led by Emirati troops had neared Hodeida in recent days. The port is some 150 kilometers (90 miles) southwest of Sanaa, Yemen's capital held by the Houthis since they swept into the city in September 2014. The Saudi-led coalition entered the war in March 2015 and has received logistical support from the U.S.
Emirati Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash earlier told French newspaper Le Figaro the deadline for a withdrawal from Hodeida by the Houthis expired early Wednesday morning.
The United Nations and other aid groups already had pulled their international staff from Hodeida ahead of the rumored assault.
Over 10,000 people have been killed in Yemen's civil war, which has displaced 2 million more and helped spawn a cholera epidemic. The Saudi-led coalition has been criticized for its airstrikes killing civilians. Meanwhile, the U.N. and Western nations say Iran has supplied the Houthis with weapons from assault rifles up to the ballistic missiles they have fired deep into Saudi Arabia, including at the capital, Riyadh.
Before the war, over 70 percent of Yemen's food and fuel imports came through Hodeida, accounting for over 40 percent of the nation's customs income. The port remains crucial for incoming aid, food and medicine for a nation driven to the brink of famine by the conflict and a Saudi-led blockade. A Saudi-led airstrike in 2015 destroyed cranes at Hodeida. The United Nations in January shipped in mobile cranes to help unload ships there.
The U.N. says some 600,000 people live in and around Hodeida, and "as many as 250,000 people may lose everything — even their lives" in the assault.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres had said that U.N. envoy Martin Griffiths was in "intense negotiations" in an attempt to avoid a military confrontation. However, Griffiths' recent appointment as envoy and his push for new negotiations may have encouraged the Saudi-led coalition to strengthen its hand ahead of any peace talks with the Houthis.