UNITED STATES (OBSERVATORY) – A Saudi-led alliance is poised to attack Yemen’s main port of Hodeidah on Tuesday, the biggest ever since the start of the three-year-old war between the Arab alliance and the Houthi movement, which controls the capital Sanaa.
The UAE, one of the main members of the Western-backed coalition, on Tuesday set a deadline for Iranian-backed Houthis to withdraw from the port of Hodeidah in the framework of UN-led negotiations or to face an attack.
It will be the first time foreign armies have tried to control a major fortified city since joining the war in defense of the Yemeni government living abroad.
Hodeidah is the largest port in Yemen and the only one under the control of the Houthis and is the lifeblood of the majority of the population of Yemen living in areas ruled by the Houthis.
The United Nations said it was carrying out “heavy” shuttle diplomacy between the Huthis on the one hand and Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which lead the alliance on the other to avoid attack.
According to UN estimates, 600,000 people live in the region and, at worst, could kill as many as 250,000 people and cut aid and supplies to millions.
UAE-led forces along the south-west coast have advanced to the outskirts of Hodeidah as part of an alliance strategy to block the Houthis in Sanaa and cut off their supply lines to force them to sit at the negotiating table.
Local military sources said hundreds of Yemeni fighters, tanks and military supplies from the UAE arrived on Monday to reinforce forces including the United Arab Emirates and Sudan in the rural area of Durahmi, 10 kilometers south of Hodeidah.
Yemeni forces allied with the Saudi-led coalition, composed of separatists from the south and local units from the coastal plain of the Red Sea and a battalion led by the nephew of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, have advanced and are “at the gates” of Hodeidah airport, the sources said.
“I think the Emiratis have done a good job in convincing proof of why (in Hodeidah) may eventually lead to the cuff in their favor and impose enough pressure to bring the Houthis to the table,” a Western diplomat said on Monday.
“The readiness of Emiratis is very important. This may be the most important thing that worries us. ”
* time limit
European governments have warned aid groups in Yemen on Saturday that there is “a military attack that is now imminent,” according to a letter seen by Reuters.
“The UAE informed us today that it will give the United Nations (and its partners) three days to leave the city,” the letter said.
The UAE foreign ministry and the government liaison office did not respond to Reuters requests for comment.
The United Nations quoted its foreign staff from Hodeidah on Monday.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said last week it had withdrawn 71 foreign workers from Yemen.
The new development of Hodeidah comes at a time of increasing tension between Saudi Arabia and its rival Iran after the United States withdrew last month from the Iranian nuclear deal, a move praised by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.
The Western allies of Saudi Arabia have not publicly stated whether they were in favor of an attack on Hodeidah. They face increased scrutiny of arms sales to countries involved in the Yemen war.
Riyadh says the Huthis are using the port to smuggle weapons made in Iran, including rockets fired at Saudi cities, charges denied by the Houthi group and Tehran.
Houthi leader Abdulmalik al-Houthi warned that the group would attack tankers in the event of an attack on Hodeidah.
The alliance says one of the main reasons for its intervention is to protect cargo in the Red Sea, from which Middle East oil and Asian goods pass through Europe through the Suez Canal.