Warnings as Yemen faces new assault

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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.

The Red Sea port, controlled by the Iran-backed Houthi rebels who hail from northern Yemen, serves as the entry point for 70 percent of the impoverished country's imports as it teeters on the brink of starvation. The port is the lifeline to much-needed supplies of food and other life-saving resources and any attack would jeopardize the ability of this country to feed itself.

The US marginally backs the Saudi-led coalition, announcing yesterday that it's helping show the coalition which targets not to hit in order to limit civilian casualties. According to the Houthis, a pair of missiles struck a landing ship as it was conveying equipment and personnel ashore, leading to the retreat of a flotilla of coalition vessels and a search and rescue operation.

Coalition forces were just 2 km from the airport, the Emirati ambassador to the United Nations, Obeid Salem Al Zaabi, told reporters in Geneva. "This comes from this seaport". The United Nations in January shipped in mobile cranes to help unload ships there.

"We have enough food for now, but we don't know if we'll have more of it if the port completely shuts down", 18-year-old Safaa, who requested her real name to be withheld, told Al Jazeera.

Riyadh says the Houthis use the port to smuggle in Iranian-made weapons, including missiles that have targeted Saudi cities.

Mohammed Ali al-Houthi said members of the invading coalition as well as the USA and Britain must be held accountable for the raid and a consequent escalation of humanitarian crisis.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.

Potential casualties among the city's population of 400,000 remain the biggest concern of the humanitarian agencies, as well as the United Nations, which has called on the warring parties to spare civilian lives.

The Norwegian Refugee Council says the Yemeni port at Hodeida remains open amid a Saudi-led campaign to retake the city.

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The council added: "People in the governorate have reported heavy airstrikes along coastal areas and roads in districts south of Hodeida city".

The operation began after a three-day deadline set by the United Arab Emirates for the Houthis to quit the port.

Hodeida is controlled by Houthi rebels who are fighting the Saudi-led coalition, and the coalition believes the port has been key to the rebels smuggling in arms. He said the rebels had countered "hostile naval warships" off the coasty of al-Olifika, to the south.

The Red Sea port serves as the entry point for 70 percent of Yemen's imports as the country teeters on the brink of starvation. "We are there and delivering, we are not leaving Hodeidah", said Lise Grande, U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Yemen.

"There is no substitute for Hodeida".

The Donald Trump administration today denied providing support for the Saudi-led Arab coalition's assault on the key Yemeni port of Hodeidah amid questioning from skeptical U.S. lawmakers.

The coalition's initial battle plan appears to involve a pincer movement.

Forces loyal to Yemen's exiled government and irregular fighters led by Emirati troops have neared Hodeida in recent days. It did not state when or where the soldiers were killed, but said at least one was a navy officer.

It would be the first time since the foreign armies joined the war in 2015 on behalf of Yemen's exiled government that they have attempted to capture such a well-defended major city. The port is some 150 kilometers (90 miles) southwest of Sanaa, Yemen's capital, which has been in Houthi hands since September 2014. There was no immediate confirmation from the coalition. The United Nations and global aid organizations pulled staff out of the city and surrounding area before the deadline.

Some 22 million people, or 80 percent of the Yemeni population, are in need of humanitarian aid, while more than half of the country is left without basic medical services.

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