KHOKHA - Air strikes and artillery fire killed 55 people near Yemen's Hodeidah, medical sources and residents said Tuesday, as the UAE insisted Huthi rebels pull out of the key port city.
Hodeidah port has been held by the Iran-backed Huthis since 2014, when the rebels drove the government out of the capital and seized control of territory across northern Yemen and the Red Sea coastline.
On June 13, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and their allies in a pro-government regional coalition launched the biggest assault of the war to retake the port, through which nearly three quarters of Yemen's imports flow, and seized the airport last week.
The international community fears the humanitarian crisis could sharply worsen if fighting for the port causes an interruption in aid. Forces backed by the UAE have been consolidating near the airport before a push to the seaport.
The coalition says the port has been used by the rebels as an entry point for weapons smuggled from Iran, including missiles fired towards its regional rival Saudi Arabia.
On Tuesday, medical sources and residents said an air strike killed eight people travelling on a bus on the road to Zabid in southern Hodeidah province.
Their identities could not immediately be confirmed.
A second strike outside Hodeidah killed six Huthi rebels travelling in a military vehicle, according to the same sources.
The Saudi-led coalition, which usually conducts air raids in the area, could not immediately be reached for comment.
Exchanges of artillery fire south of Hodeidah city also left 38 Huthi fighters and three pro-government troops dead in the past 24 hours, according to medical and local sources.
The UN envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, is due in Yemen's southern city of Aden on Wednesday for talks with President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi, whose forces have battled for weeks to regain control of Hodeidah.
The Iran-aligned Huthis have indicated they would be willing to hand over management of Hodeidah port to the United Nations, and Washington has reportedly encouraged the coalition to accept such a deal.
However, it remains to be seen whether the Huthis could be persuaded to leave the city. They have been preparing for battle in urban areas, where the coalition's forces would be expected to meet tougher resistance than they have so far.
Residents said the Huthis are digging trenches, building defence berms and reinforcing their ranks with troops in Hodeidah and in other towns surrounding the city.
The United Arab Emirates, which has US-trained troops deployed on the ground in western Yemen, is demanding the rebels withdraw from both the port and city to avoid a full-blown military assault on densely-populated areas.
"We are hopeful and we believe in the political process," Reem al-Hashimi, the UAE minister of state for international cooperation, said Tuesday.
She said that the coalition was in close contact with the UN envoy "and we do want to see this come to a positive conclusion."
But she added: "There are really certain elements we won't sway from ... the withdrawal of Huthis from the city is essential."
"We cannot imagine a setup where the Huthis can be in the city."
Griffiths, who held a first round of meetings on the Hodeidah crisis in rebel-held Sanaa earlier this month, is holding talks with both sides to "return rapidly to the negotiating table", his office said.
Afraid to die
"People in the city are afraid to die and their only hope is that the UN envoy will get a peace deal and prevent the war, though nobody is optimistic because of their previous attempts," said Houda Ahmed, a teacher in Hodeidah city.
Griffiths, the envoy, has succeeded in keeping communication channels open with the Huthi leaders, in a contrast with a predecessor who was accused of dropping neutrality.
Western countries have tacitly backed the Arab states diplomatically, and the United States, Britain and France sell them billions of dollars a year in arms. But the prospect that a major offensive could cause a humanitarian catastrophe has prompted the Western states to urge caution on their allies.
A conference in Paris on Yemen set for Wednesday and jointly chaired by France and Saudi Arabia has been downgraded from the ministerial level to the level of experts. Neither the Huthis nor aid groups will attend. French officials said they still hoped for some progress from the Arab states on alleviating the humanitarian situation.
A French diplomatic source said Riyadh had indicated it may be ready to offer some concessions, including allowing more flights to and from the Huthi-controlled Sanaa airport, more visas for humanitarian workers and creating one inspection system into the port of Hodeidah. "Previous discussions make us think that they can go further on this," the source said.
The coalition says it must recapture Hodeidah to deprive the Huthis of their main source of income and prevent them from smuggling in arms. It has pledged a swift military operation to take the airport and seaport without entering the city, to minimise civilian casualties and keep aid flowing.
The fighting has showed some signs of abating on the ground in the last two days, residents said, despite the Huthis firing missiles at the Saudi capital Riyadh on Sunday. They have threatened more attacks in response to the Hodeidah offensive.
"The special envoy requires about a week or so in his conversations, those are quite delicate. Friday or Saturday this week, it comes to an end. We have continued to take a very measured and tactical approach," al-Hashimi said.
Nearly 10,000 people have died in the Yemen war since 2015 when Saudi Arabia and its allies joined the government's fight against the Huthis.
The conflict has pushed Yemen, long the most impoverished country in the Arab world, to the brink of famine.