JEDDAH: Battles raged on Monday around the Red Sea port city of Hodeidah as the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen said it was committed to de-escalating hostilities amid growing calls for a cease-fire.
At least 150 people, mainly fighters from the Iran-backed Houthi militias, have died in five days of renewed conflict since last Thursday.
Yemeni government forces backed by the coalition are now positioned around both the north and south of Hodeidah. The city and its port, along with the capital Sanaa, have been controlled by the Houthis since 2014.
Yemeni military officials said the coalition had sent fighter jets and Apache attack helicopters on Monday to support troops on the ground around the city.
The UN has appealed for urgent peace talks and warned that a full military offensive on Hodeidah would threaten millions of lives. UN envoy Martin Griffiths aims to bring the government of Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and the Houthis to Sweden for talks this month.
Houthi and government sources both reported intense fighting on Monday, although a coalition source said the clashes were not “offensive operations” and the alliance was “committed to keeping the Hodeida port open.”
Militia leader Mohammed Ali Al-Houthi said there had been a “military escalation by the coalition” in “a strenuous attempt to block talks aimed at ending the war and finding peace.”
However, his claims were dismissed by a coalition source, who said the government alliance was “committed to de-escalating hostilities in Yemen and strongly supportive of the UN envoy’s political process.”
The alliance suspended an offensive to take Hodeidah in August, to allow space for UN efforts to hold negotiations in Geneva. The talks collapsed the following month when the Houthis refused to travel unless the UN guaranteed the evacuation of their wounded fighters.
“If the Houthis fail to show up for peace talks again, this might lead us to restart the offensive operation in Hodeidah,” the coalition source said.
“The humanitarian situation in Yemen is unacceptable. We are committed to ending the conflict as soon as possible.”
Yemeni military officials said government forces were trying to advance on the outskirts of Hodeidah with the aim of surrounding the city and cutting off a Houthi supply route.
Hodeidah is the main point of entry for humanitarian aid to Yemen, but it is also a route for the supply of Iranian weapons and ammunition, including parts for missiles used to attack Saudi Arabia.
British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said on Monday he would push for new action at the UN Security Council to try to end hostilities and find a political solution. UN diplomats said Britain was working with the US on a draft resolution.
“Now for the first time there appears to be a window in which both sides can be encouraged to come to the table, stop the killing and find a political solution that is the only long-term way out of disaster,” Hunt said.