UAE says ultimatum on Yemen port of Hodeidah expires Tuesday night

UAE says ultimatum on Yemen port of Hodeidah expires Tuesday night

A Saudi-led coalition backing Yemen's exiled government began an assault named Operation Golden Victory Wednesday morning on Yemen's port city of Hodeida, a crucial battle in the 3-year-old conflict that aid agencies warned could push the Arab world's poorest country into further chaos.

The Red Sea port, controlled by Iran-aligned rebels known as Houthis, is the main point of entry for food and medicine in the war-torn country, which is already on the brink of starvation.

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.

Before dawn on Wednesday, convoys of vehicles appeared to be heading towards the rebel-held city, according to videos posted on social media. The sound of heavy, sustained gunfire clearly could be heard in the background.

A senior United Arab Emirates official said an ultimatum for the United Nations to convince the Iran-aligned Houthi movement to evacuate Yemen's main port of Hodeidah expired on Tuesday night.

The Arab Coalition's spokesman, Colonel Turki al-Malki, said on Wednesday that the Houthis have failed all political efforts to hand over the western city of Hodeidah.

Saudi-owned satellite news channels have announced the start of the Saudi-led coalition's assault on Hodeida.

"Thanks to them controlling the port of Hodeidah, they are getting financing, which allows them to get weapons, weapons such as missiles that are then fired on Saudi Arabia".

Hadi's government said in a statement reported by Saudi media on Wednesday that all political and peaceful approaches to drive the Houthis out of Hodeidah had been exhausted.

Khalid bin Salman, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the USA, said addressing the humanitarian situation effectively "requires liberating Yemen from the control of Houthi militias" which he said disrupt the flow and distribution of humanitarian supplies.

Yemeni officials said government forces had headed to the eastern coast, aiming to cut off a rebel supply line between Hodeidah and the Houthi-held capital Sanaa.

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Exiled President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and many of his advisers now live in Saudi Arabia after Shiite rebels known as Houthis seized the capital, Sanaa, in September 2014.

Hudaydah became even more important after the conflict between the Houthis and the government escalated in March 2015, when the Saudi-led coalition intervened.

The United Nations on Monday withdrew its worldwide staff from Hodeida, saying an attack would "impact hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians".

Hudaydah is a lifeline for people living in rebel-held areas, serving as the most important point of entry for the basic supplies needed to prevent starvation and a recurrence of a cholera epidemic that affected a million people past year.

The U.N. Security Council will hold an emergency meeting Thursday on the Saudi-led coalition's offensive against Yemen's rebel-held Red Sea port of Hodeida.

The UN special envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, said the world body was talking to both sides to try to avert a battle. However, Griffiths' recent appointment as envoy and his push for new negotiations might have encouraged the Saudi-led coalition to strengthen its hand ahead of any peace talks.

"I think the Emiratis have done a good job in presenting compelling arguments about why an operation (on Hodeidah) could in the end tip the balance and apply enough pressure to bring the Houthis to the table", a Western diplomat said on Monday.

The UN and International Committee of the Red Cross, meanwhile, said that all parties in Yemen's war must protect civilians.

United Nations refugee chief Filippo Grandi said there was a danger Yemenis might try to flee across the sea to Somalia or Djibouti.

Washington had also cautioned against the assault. "We have a ship offloading food even as shelling and bombing is happening", Grande said.

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