(Bloomberg) -- Yemeni government forces backed by Saudi-led coalition warplanes said they seized control of Hodeidah airport from Houthi rebels on Tuesday, a major objective in their fight to recapture the western city that is the country’s aid and food lifeline.
The airport, which includes civilian and military zones, was now being combed for any remaining pockets of rebels after days of intense fighting, said Abdulrehman al-Mahrami, who leads the Yemeni forces on the west coast front. There was no immediate comment from the Houthis.
The government and its Gulf partners, including the United Arab Emirates, began their assault on the port city of 400,000 people last week. The U.A.E. says the operation aims to force the Iranian-aligned Houthis into talks, but the United Nations has warned two-thirds of the population could die if Hodeidah is besieged, and is pushing for a political resolution to spare the city.
The battle for Hodeidah, 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. The capture of the airport, however, could give the Saudi-backed coalition the upper hand as it advances on the real prize -- the port.
“Strategically it’s a big win for the coalition. They now have a ready-made operations base to work from as they begin the campaign for the port and the city. It took them longer than anticipated, but that also translated to a high cost for the Houthis,” said Peter Salisbury, a senior fellow at Chatham House’s Middle East & North Africa Program. “The question for me is if the Houthis have the manpower and resources to mount the same kind of defense of the port.”
Saudi Arabia and its allies intervened in Yemen’s war in March 2015 after the Houthis took control of the capital 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, which has accused Iran of supplying such weapons.
During the war, the Saudi-led coalition has disrupted food and other supplies coming into Yemen by imposing a naval blockade on ports including Hodeidah, which they have said are used to smuggle in weapons. The Houthis extract payments on goods that are trucked through the areas they control, forcing up food costs.
The fighting has created a human catastrophe, with thousands of civilians killed, and displacement, hunger and sickness rampant. Three-quarters of the country’s 28 million people need aid to stave off hunger and disease, and half of those require it urgently to survive, according to the UN. About 5,200 families had fled the fighting in Hodeidah, it said Monday.
Despite their military supremacy, Saudi-backed forces have advanced slowly as the rebels have dug in for a guerrilla battle, building concrete bunkers and carrying out nighttime raids on the coalition supply lines, a government commander who asked not to be identified, said.
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.