SANAA, Yemen -- Despite U.S. calls for a cease-fire, fighting is escalating in a strategic Yemeni port city, threatening the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians and deepening a humanitarian crisis where millions are already grappling with a possible famine.
The clashes in Hodeida, pitting a U.S.-backed regional coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates against northern Houthi rebels, has led to numerous civilian casualties over the past week, said residents, health workers and aid agencies. The violence is also nearing medical facilities, threatening the safety of patients and essential medical workers.
The fighting has particularly intensified near Hodeida's port, through which passes more than 70 percent of all food, fuel medicines and other essential supplies destined for the northern part of the country where large majority of Yemenis live.
"Hodeida is once again trapped in violence with hundreds of thousands of Yemenis caught in the middle," Fabrizio Carboni, a senior official for the International Committee for the Red Cross, said in a statement Thursday.
Residents said they remain confined inside their houses as battles, with mortars and snipers, rage outside in parts of the city. Houthi rebels have dug in, patrolling the streets in machine-gun mounted pickups and deploying their fighters into buildings, houses and hospitals.
The coalition meanwhile has conducted scores of airstrikes and deployed U.S.-made helicopters to target areas in and around Hodeida, including residential neighborhoods.
"We have been receiving a lot of civilian casualties," said Dr. Mareb Almahweeti, a surgeon at a military hospital in the city, adding that many of the injured were struck in the neck and chest by shrapnel from airstrikes.
"The Apache helicopters are bombing many areas around the city most of the day," he added. "We also hear airstrikes most of the day. The bombing is closer than before."
After besieging Hodeida over the summer, the coalition launched a new offensive a week ago, two days after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called for a cease-fire and peace talks in 30 days, roughly at the end of November. An array of militias, aligned with the UAE and the Yemeni government, pushed forward into the city, backed by airstrikes and heavy artillery.
The coalition of Sunni Muslim countries is seeking to oust the rebels and restore Yemen's internationally recognized government, not the least because the Shiite Houthis are widely said to be backed by Iran. The United States is aiding the coalition with intelligence, billions of dollars in arms sales and by refueling its warplanes.
A senior Yemeni government official said the goal of the offensive is to militarily weaken the Houthis and push them into negotiations. Hodeida's port is a vital source of funds and supplies for the rebels, and losing control over the city could deliver a hard blow to the Houthis' military operations.
"The goal is to take over Hodeida before the 30 days," said Moammar al Eryani, Yemen's minister of information. "If Hodeida is freed, the Houthis will be forced to come and sit with us at the table."
A collection of aid groups, including CARE and 34 others, issued a statement Thursday, calling for an immediate cease-fire in Yemen.
The statement urged the international community to "secure an immediate cessation of hostilities" and "suspend the supply of arms at risk of being used in Yemen." The United States sells most of the weapons used by the coalition, while the rebels largely use local stocks. The Houthis have also been accused of firing Iran-made missiles into Saudi Arabia and at coalition ships.
Amnesty International warned late Wednesday that rebels have taken up positions on a Hodeida hospital rooftop, raising concerns they are using the hospital's patients as human shields to ward off coalition airstrikes.
Information for this article was contributed by Ali Al Mujahed and Sudarsan Raghavan of The Washington Post; and by Brian Rohan of The Associated Press.
A Section on 11/09/2018
Print Headline: Fighting escalates in Yemeni port city