'Catastrophic' risk of death for 300,000 Yemeni children trapped by attack

'Catastrophic' risk of death for 300,000 Yemeni children trapped by attack

A Saudi-led coalition backing pro-government troops in Yemen has launched an assault on the country's main port city of Hodeidah in what threatens to become the fiercest battle of a three-year war against Iranian-allied Houthi rebels.

Saudi Arabia's ambassador in Washington Khaled bin Salman also on Tuesday said the retaking of Hodeida was critical, tweeting that the Iran-backed rebels posed a "growing threat" to maritime security. But it could set off a prolonged street-by-street battle that inflicts heavy casualties.

United Nations resident and humanitarian co-ordinator for Yemen Lise Grande, speaking by telephone from Sanaa, said that her office was drawing up options to ensure aid delivery to millions of Yemenis "in case of a possible siege of Hodeidah", including a humanitarian airlift.

Social media users shared video of what appeared to be a convoy of vehicles approaching the crucial port city early Wednesday morning.

The Iran-backed Houthis hold both Hodeida and Yemen's capital Sanaa and have been battling the Saudi-backed government of Yemen since 2014. "Some civilians are entrapped, others forced from their homes", said Jolien Veldwijk, the acting country director of the aid group CARE International, which works in Hudaida.

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The port city of Hudaida is crucial for incoming aid, food and medicine for a nation driven to the brink of starvation by the conflict and a Saudi-led blockade.

The officials and residents spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media and for fear of reprisals.

"The liberation of Hodeidah port is a turning point in our struggle to recapture Yemen from the militias that hijacked it to serve foreign agendas".

"Cutting off imports through Hodeida for any length of time will put Yemen's population at extreme, unjustifiable risk", Lise Grande, UN humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, said.

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Houthi leader Mohammed Ali Al-Houthi, who has threatened attacks on tankers entering the Red Sea, warned the alliance not to attack and said on Twitter his forces had struck a coalition barge. But the first wave of this relatively high-tech assault by irregular Houthi forces occurred back on October 2nd, 2016 when the high-speed logistics catamaran HSV-2 Swift was destroyed by an anti-ship missile. There was no immediate confirmation from the coalition. The U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, whose area of responsibility includes the Red Sea, referred questions to the Pentagon, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Yemen's government declared Tuesday night that negotiations had failed to force the rebels from Hodeida, and that a grace period for UN-led peace efforts was over.

The conflict in Yemen has raged since late 2014, when the Houthis and allied forces seized north-western parts of the country, including the capital Sanaa, and eventually forced President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi to flee overseas.

The UN and other aid groups already had pulled their global staff from Hodeida ahead of the rumoured assault.

The port remains open, with supplies arriving.

Aid groups nevertheless warned of disaster.

"Addressing the humanitarian situation in a sustainable and effective manner requires liberating Yemen from the control of Houthi militias, which intentionally disrupt the flow and distribution of humanitarian supplies".

The Security Council has strongly supported efforts by new United Nations special envoy Martin Griffiths to resume political negotiations and avoid a military escalation of the three-year-long conflict that has killed more than 10,000 people, displaced more than 2 million, and created the world's worst humanitarian crisis. Saudi-led airstrikes have killed large numbers of civilians and damaged vital infrastructure.

The Red Sea port is the only port under rebel control and the coalition says Houthis are using it to smuggle weapons.

The importance of Hodeidah lies in the fact that it has one of the key strategic ports on the Red Sea Coast.

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