Airport seized from Yemen rebels

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Saudi-led forces heading an assault on Yemen’s rebel-held port city of Hodeida seized control of its international airport yesterday, officials loyal to Yemen’s exiled government said, as fierce fighting continued for the starving nation’s main gateway for food shipments

Engineers worked to clear mines from areas around Hodeida International Airport, just south of the city of some 600,000 people on the Red Sea, the military of Yemen’s exiled government said.

“The armed forces which are supported by the Arab coalition has freed the al-Hodeida International Airport from the Houthi militias and the engineering teams have started to clean the airport and its surroundings from mines and bombs,” a spokesman for the military said.

Other government officials and witnesses later said coalition forces had not yet fully taken control of the airport facility.

Sadek Dawad, spokesman of the Republic Guards force loyal to the Yemeni government, said government forces had battled on to the airport campus.

“The military operations to liberate the city of Hodeida will not be stopped until we secure the city and its strategic port and that won’t last too long,” he said.

Yemen’s Shiite rebels known as Houthis, who hold the country’s capital of Sanaa, did not immediately acknowledge losing the airport.

Yemeni officials and witnesses said forces from the United Arab Emirates-backed Amaleqa brigades, supported by air cover from the Saudi-led coalition, were heading to eastern Hodeida province to attempt to cut off the main road that links it with the capital, Sanaa. The officials said if government forces capture the Kilo 16 Road they will trap the rebels in Hodeida and the western coast and prevent them from receiving supplies from the capital. The rebels are then expected to have no choice but to head to the northern province of Hajjah.

United Nations special envoy Martin Griffiths, meanwhile arrived in Sanaa in an effort to broker a ceasefire.

The Saudi-led coalition began its assault last Wednesday on Hodeida, the main entry for food into a country already on the brink of famine. Emirati forces are leading ground forces mixed with their own troops, irregular militiamen and soldiers backing Yemen’s exiled government. Saudi Arabia has provided air support, with targeting guidance and refuelling coming from the USA.

International aid groups and the UN cautioned the Saudi-led coalition against launching the assault. Their fear is that a protracted fight could force a shutdown of Hodeida’s port at a time when a halt in aid risks tipping millions into starvation.

Some 70 per cent of Yemen’s food enters via the port, as well as the bulk of humanitarian aid and fuel supplies.

Around two-thirds of the country’s population of 27 million relies on aid and 8.4 million are already at risk of starving.

For its part, the Saudi-led coalition says it had no choice but to launch the assault as the port provided millions of dollars for the Houthis through customs controls.