Fighting for control of Yemen’s rebel-held city of Hodeida reached residential streets on Sunday, as the Huthi insurgents mounted fierce resistance to government forces backed by Saudi Arabia, military sources said.
Fears for civilian safety have been rising since November 1, when the loyalist forces renewed an operation to take Hodeida. The Red Sea port city has been in the grip of Yemen’s Iran-backed Huthi rebels since 2014.
Troops entered residential streets in eastern Hodeida Sunday with the aim of ‘purging them of insurgents’, according to a pro-government military official.
Rebels entrenched in the streets and positioned on rooftops battled to keep loyalist fighters out of a neighbourhood located between two major landmarks in Hodeida, the city’s main hospital and vegetable market, both essential to the daily lives of civilians.
Yemenis across the city have reported seeing snipers stationed on rooftops and rebel-run tanks firing artillery in Hodeida, home to the impoverished country’s most important port.
Residents south of the site of Sunday’s clashes said they could hear gunfire and shelling throughout the night.
‘We had three people from our neighbourhood hospitalised over the weekend for shrapnel wounds,’ said Marwa, who asked that her name be changed.
‘We’re really tired. It’s not safe. We have no money. This time no one is leaving. We can’t afford it, and it’s too dangerous.’
Saudi Arabia and its allies first launched an offensive to take Hodeida in June, sparking an exodus from the densely populated city.
The operation was temporarily suspended amid UN efforts to hold peace talks, which failed to materialise. The United Nations is now pushing for talks by the end of the year.
Pro-government fighters moved into the neighbourhood between the May 22 hospital — the largest in Hodeida — and Sanaa Road, which links the port city to inland Yemen.
Fighters clashed around the Al-Waha (Oasis) Resort hotel complex, closing in on a civilian district located south of the hospital and north of Sanaa Road.
Hodeida’s docks, while under blockade, were not yet impacted by the fighting, according to a local official.
‘We cannot predict what will happen in the future, but at the moment there are no problems,’ Yahya Sharafeddine, deputy director of Hodeida port, said.
Hodeida is a vital lifeline for Yemenis across the war-torn country, as the majority of imports and humanitarian aid enter through its port.
Around 14 million Yemenis are at risk of famine and many more are dependent on international aid, according to the UN.
Hodeida port has been blockaded by the Saudi-led alliance since November 2017 over what the coalition says is arms smuggling from Iran to the Huthis. Tehran denies the charge.
Sanaa international airport, held by the rebels, is also under blockade by Saudi Arabia and its allies who control Yemen’s airspace and maritime borders.
The first rebel defection from Sanaa, where the Huthis run a parallel government, was announced Friday with Huthi minister Abdul Salam Ali Jaber fleeing to Saudi Arabia.
More than 400 combatants have been killed in 10 days of clashes in Hodeida.
Only one civilian death has been reported. Aid group Save the Children last week confirmed the death of a 15-year-old boy critically wounded by shrapnel.
Medics on Sunday said at least 61 fighters had been killed over the course of 24 hours, with dozens of wounded taken to hospitals outside the city.
Medics in Hodeida city reported 43 Huthi rebels and nine loyalists were killed in clashes over the same period.
Another nine loyalist fighters were reported killed by medics at a hospital in government-held Mokha, south of Hodeida.
Dozens of wounded rebels were transferred to hospitals in the provinces of Sanaa and Ibb, further inland, a source at the Hodeida military hospital said.
In 2014, the Huthis overran the capital Sanaa and swept though much of the rest of the country, triggering the Saudi-led intervention the following year.
The rebels have since been driven out of virtually all of the south and much of the Red Sea coast, with the exception of Hodeida.
Both parties in the Yemen conflict stand accused of acts that could amount to war crimes.
The Saudi-led coalition has been blacklisted by the United Nations for the maiming and killing of children, including an attack that killed at least 26 children south of Hodeida.
The United States on Saturday said it halted a controversial refuelling arrangement for coalition aircraft engaged in Yemen.
The World Health Organisation estimates nearly 10,000 people have been killed in the war since 2015.
Other rights groups believe the toll may be five times as high.
The conflict has triggered what the UN calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis and pushed the country to the brink of famine.
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