Cairo: Yemeni government forces, backed by the Saudi-led coalition, have wrested control of all approaches to the strategic port city of Hodeida after clashes with Iran-aligned Al Houthi militants, military sources reported Thursday.
The fighting resulted in heavy casualties and hardware losses for Al Houthis, a pro-government force known as Giants Brigade said.
Medics at hospitals inside the Red Sea city reported that 47 militiamen had been killed in overnight ground fighting and air raids by the coalition, AFP reported.
The coalition-backed forces have made swift advances into the rebel-held city since they started a major operation a week ago to expel Al Houthis from Hodeida and its crucial port.
Most of Yemen’s humanitarian aid and imports go through the Hodeida port.
Al Houthis, who have been in control of Hodeida since late 2014, are notorious for abuses against civilians.
Human rights group Amnesty International said Al Houthis have taken up positions on a hospital rooftop in Hodeida, raising concerns that the extremists plan to use the patients there as human shields in order to head off air strikes by the coalition.
Battles raged Thursday near the May 22 Hospital in the eastern part of Hodeida as the government forces push towards the heart of the city, Yemeni media reported.
Al Houthis’ presence on the hospital rooftop “violates international humanitarian law, but this violation does not make the hospital and the patients and medical staff lawful targets” for the coalition, Amnesty said in a statement.
Over the past few days, battles have intensified close to the Hodeida harbour, a lifeline for the impoverished country.
The coalition-backed troops now control a major road leading into the city after they pounded the rebel positions, military officials and witnesses on both sides of the front line said.
The UAE-trained Giants Brigade, backed by Apache attack helicopters, secured an urban area along 50th Street, which leads to the city’s key port facilities some 5km, they added, according to AP.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals or lack of authorisation to brief journalists, they said the Iran-backed rebels had been firing mainly from elevated and rooftop sniper positions, and have now resorted to burning tyres to obscure the gunships’ view. Most civilians have fled the area, they said.
In a sign of support for the Hodeida operation, Yemeni President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi has appointed Mohammad Al Maqdishi as minister of defence replacing Mahmoud Al Subehi, whom Al Houthis have detained since 2015, Yemen’s official news agency Saba reported late Wednesday.
Hadi has also named Abdullah Al Nakhi as new army chief of staff.
The escalating fight in Hodeida comes amid increasing international calls for Yemen’s warring sides to end the conflict of more than three years. The US has urged the combatants to observe a ceasefire by the end of this month.
UN envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths is trying to bring the government and rebels together for a new round of peace talks, which Sweden offered to host this month.
The government has announced readiness for peacemaking, while Al Houthis have demanded the US stop support for the coalition.
UN-brokered indirect talks for Yemen’s peace collapsed in September when rebels did not appear in Geneva.