Spotlight: Yemeni gov't forces continue battles to free strategic Hodeidah from Houthi rebels

Source: Xinhua| 2018-06-18 23:58:23|Editor: Liangyu
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by Murad Abdu

ADEN, Yemen, June 18 (Xinhua) -- Yemeni government forces, backed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), on Monday continued their fight against the Iranian-backed Shiite Houthis in their all-out offensive to free the western port city of Hodeidah, a military official told Xinhua.

On the sixth day of the offensive, the government troops fought sporadic clashes with Houthi militants in several areas of Hodeidah, while Saudi-led warplanes concentrated on shelling Houthi-controlled positions around the city's airport.

The source, who asked to be anonymous, said government forces also targeted Houthis with artillery and mortar rounds, killing scores of rebels in the areas of Hays and Tuhyatah.

"Houthi fighters desperately keep attempting to infiltrate into government-controlled sites but they always fail and get nothing," the local source said.

He added that battles around Hodeidah's airport are still ongoing between the two warring sides amid intensified air raids.

A field commander told Xinhua by phone that Yemeni forces backed by the Saudi-led coalition started to deploy more troops and armored vehicles around the airport of Hodeidah in a bid to storm and kick the Houthis out of the facility.

Meanwhile, a source from the Operations Command of Hodeidah Liberation told Xinhua on condition of anonymity that "the government forces are establishing a strategic military base on Hodeidah's outskirts to combine the efforts and organize plans for the anti-Houthi operations."

"The military base will be used as main headquarters for the armed forces and experts along with field commanders who start managing the battles from there," he said.

Six well-trained Brigades of the Al-Amaliqah (Giants), with over 15,000 soldiers belonging to the Southern Resistance Forces backed by the UAE, were also mobilized to storm Hodeidah and lead the fighting against Houthis there, according to the source.

In Yemen's capital Sanaa, sources said the talks between the Houthi leaders and the United Nations Special Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths on Hodeidah reached no constructive results.

The Houthi leaders postponed the leaving date of the UN envoy to Tuesday, possibly to lay down more conditions for their withdrawal from Hodeidah, including "lifting the blockade and ending the Saudi-led military campaign against Yemen."

The Houthi spokesperson told local media that they would not quit Hodeidah easily and would go on "fighting the foreign forces and local mercenaries till they take control of entire Yemen."

The UAE Foreign Affairs Minister Anwar Gargash said the Arab coalition is "still counting on the UN attempt to pull a rabbit out of a hat" and convince the Iran-aligned Houthi fighters to cede control of Hodeidah port peacefully without armed confrontations.

But an Aden-based government source said it is not the right moment for negotiations with Houthi militias.

"Liberating Hodeidah is imminent and our political leadership won't accept any talks particularly at this time," the source told Xinhua on condition of anonymity.

"Houthis will never abandon their arms peacefully because they only understand the language of violence and guns. Their existence in Hodeidah caused a lot of of suffering for the people," the government source added.

Earlier in the day, local residents in Hodeidah said Houthis launched military preparations, and began digging trenches and blocking roads leading to the port and the airport of the city with cement barricades.

According to Hodeidah-based activists, the Houthi militias have captured "a number of farm owners and local citizens in the east of the 50th Street in an attempt to use them as human shields."

They said the Houthis gave strict orders to its military checkpoints to prevent local citizens or families from leaving Hodeidah.

Several farms were planted with thousands of landmines, and residential buildings turned into military barracks and weapons stores for Houthi fighters.

On Sunday, scores of families were displaced due to the fighting in Hodeidah. They took shelter in local schools amid dire humanitarian situation.

The Yemeni government, supported by the Emirates Red Crescent, said a committee was formed to identify the displaced, meet their demands and provide them with urgent assistance.

Yemen's government forces also announced the opening of safe routes for residents who want to leave Houthi-controlled areas in Hodeidah, and ordered the soldiers to provide local people with protection.

Observers said the Houthis will seek to prolong their stay in Hodeidah by exploiting local people and preventing their evacuation in order to cause humanitarian losses as much as possible.

The humanitarian issue in Hodeidah will be used by the Houthis as the pretext to stop the Saudi-led military operation aimed at retaking the strategic port city, they said.

On Wednesday, Yemeni government forces loyal to Yemen's internationally-backed President Abdu-Rabbu Mansour Hadi launched an all-out military campaign. They reached the outskirts of Hodeidah International Airport early Friday amid heavy aerial bombardment from the Saudi-led warplanes.

The Saudi-backed Yemeni government regards retaking Hodeidah and its key port "as a milestone on the path of restoring the country from the grips of the Houthis which will mark the beginning of the rebels' fall, and secure navigation in the Bab el-Mandab Strait."

Strategically situated on the Red Sea coast, Hodeidah, Yemen's fourth largest city with a population of 600,000, is the only major port city under Houthis' control.

The Hodeidah port, which the Houthis captured from Yemen's internationally-recognized government in October 2014, serves as a key source of strength for Houthi militias because it is regarded as a lifeline for many Yemenis.

According to the United Nations, Yemen is undergoing world's largest humanitarian crisis since 1945 with two thirds of the population, or 19 million people, in need of humanitarian assistance.

The UN warned that the battles to liberate Hodeidah, which has the highest poverty and malnutrition rates in the war-torn country, could kill 250,000 people.