(Bloomberg) -- Yemen rebels attacked government supply lines south of Hodeidah, slowing a Saudi-led coalition’s efforts to oust them from the port city through which desperately needed aid enters.
The rebels harried coalition fighters in nighttime attacks from farms located on the Red Sea coastal road south of the city, forcing them to reroute troops and supplies, said a government commander who asked not to be identified discussing the battle’s progress. The coalition responded with gunfire from Apache helicopters, according to the commander and Mohamed Naji, a fighter.
The government and its Gulf partners, including the United Arab Emirates, launched the siege of Hodeidah last week. Their first objective is to wrest the city’s airport from the rebels, who built concrete bunkers and positioned snipers to resist the coalition’s advance.
Saudi-led forces started the attack to pressure the Houthis to negotiate and are “moving methodically” to avoid being pulled “into an ugly fight in civilian areas,” the U.A.E.’s minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, said in a press conference on Monday. France has offered to help the coalition clear rebel mines from the port, he said.
The battle for Hodeidah, the entry point for 70 percent of Yemen’s imports and humanitarian assistance, has become a pivotal point in the country’s three-year-old civil war. A loss or drawn-out clashes for the Saudi-led coalition would deal another blow to Riyadh’s efforts to win the proxy war with regional rival Iran.
United Nations envoy Martin Griffiths is in the Houthi-held capital, Sana’a, to try to persuade the rebels to abandon the port city, Gargash said. The combatants had defied his previous efforts to head off a clash, and in a statement last week, Griffiths urged both sides to “exercise restraint and engage with political efforts to spare Hodeidah a military confrontation.”
The UN said on Monday that about 5,200 families have fled the fighting.
“A Houthi counter-offensive is expected,” said Paul Sullivan, a Middle East analyst at the National Defense University in Washington. “These battles may go on for a lot longer. Iran and others would see the Houthi loss as their own loss, and they would be right. So the backers of the Houthis will likely stay in the battle in the shadows.”
Saudi Arabia and its allies intervened in Yemen’s war in March 2015 after the Houthis took control of Sana’a and other cities, forcing President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi into exile in Riyadh. While the alliance has been able to recover areas in southern Yemen, the Houthis still control Sana’a and territories in the north, and frequently fire ballistic missiles into Saudi Arabia.
The fighting has created a human catastrophe, with thousands of civilians killed, and poverty, displacement, hunger and sickness rampant.
The coalition’s military approach in Hodeidah is “calibrated” to “allow the Houthis to do the right thing, which is to decide to withdraw unconditionally and move their militia out,” Gargash said. “We kept the Hodeidah-Sana’a road open to allow an escape route.”
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