Emirati-backed Yemeni government forces seized Hodeidah airport from Houthi rebels, the coalition said, in a major step towards retaking the key Red Sea port city.
“The airport was completely cleared, Thank God, and is under control,” the coalition commander for the Red Sea coast, Abdul Salaam al-Shehi, said in a video posted by the United Arab Emirates’ official WAM news agency on Wednesday, June 20.
Coalition-backed Yemeni government forces broke through the airport perimeter fence on Tuesday sparking heavy fighting in which at least 33 rebels and 19 soldiers were killed.
Last Wednesday, they launched an offensive to clear Hodeidah of rebel fighters who have held it since 2014, raising U.N. concerns for vital aid shipments and food imports through the city’s docks.
The airport is disused but housed a major rebel base just inland from the coast road into the city from the south.
It lies eight kilometers (five miles) from the city’s port, through which three-quarters of Yemen’s imports pass, providing a lifeline for some 22 million people dependent on aid.
United Nations envoy Martin Griffiths held four days of talks in the rebel-held capital Sana’a in a bid to avert an all-out battle for the city but flew out on Tuesday without announcing any breakthrough.
The United Arab Emirates and other members of a coalition of mostly Gulf countries that intervened in support of the government in 2015 have accused the Houthis of smuggling Iranian weapons through Hodeidah.
The U.N. has warned any attack on Hodeida port could cripple shipments of desperately needed aid to the 8.4 million Yemenis facing imminent starvation.
Hodeidah’s residents are now bracing for what they fear will be devastating street fighting, as tanks and buses carrying uniformed troops roll through the empty streets of the once-bustling city.
No civilian casualties have yet been confirmed in the battle for Hodeidah but at least 216 combatants have been reported killed in the week of fighting so far.
Some 5,200 families fled their homes as pro-government forces advanced up the Red Sea coast, according to the U.N..
The offensive dubbed Operation Golden Victory is now the most intense battlefront in an already brutal war.
Saudi Arabia, the UAE and their allies intervened in 2015, after President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi fled into exile as the rebels overran much of the country.
The conflict has since killed nearly 10,000 people, most of them civilians. Millions have been displaced.
The coalition has helped pro-government forces to regain control of the south and much of the Red Sea coast but the rebels still control Sana’a and most of the north.
Multiple rounds of U.N.-brokered peace talks have all failed to achieve any breakthrough.
The Yemeni government and its allies have insisted that the Houthis must fully withdraw from Hodeidah and turn over the port to U.N. supervision.
The rebels have so far agreed only to share control of the port with the United Nations.
With reporting by AFP