Saudi-led forces begin Yemen assault

Battle for Yemen's biggest port under way

Yemen's biggest port, Hodeidah is the lifeline for the majority of Yemen's population, which lives in Houthi territory.

Houthi-run Al Masirah TV said two missiles struck the barge, but there was no immediate confirmation from the coalition.

"Under global humanitarian law, parties to the conflict have to do everything possible to protect civilians and ensure they have access to the assistance they need to survive", said Lise Grande, U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Yemen.

It would be the first time since they joined the war on behalf of Yemen's exiled government that the foreign armies have attempted to capture such a well-defended major city.

Yemen's exiled government "has exhausted all peaceful and political means to remove the Houthi militia from the port of Hodeidah", it said in a statement.

Yemeni forces massing around Al Hudaydah are a mix of local fighters, those loyal to President Hadi, and supporters of the ex-head of state, Ali Abdullah Saleh. The U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, whose area of responsibility includes the Red Sea, referred questions to the Pentagon, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Emirati-led troops have advanced along the southwestern coast to the outskirts of Hodeidah under a strategy to box in the Houthis in the capital Sanaa and cut off their supply lines to force them to the negotiating table.

"We fear that a prolonged attack or siege on Hodeidah could be catastrophic for civilians", Lise Grande, the UN's head Yemen humanitarian coordinator, previously told the Wall Street Journal, adding that 250,000 of the city's 400,000 people could be killed.

The Trump administration last week was reportedly considering helping the UAE, which is part of the Saudi-led coalition, in an assault on Hodeidah. The support has continued despite global alarm over the coalition's air campaign against the Houthis, which has killed thousands of civilians in airstrikes that human rights groups have alleged are frequently indiscriminate.

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The news came Wednesday night after USA military officials said that the United States is helping the Saudi-led coalition choose targets that will minimize civilian casualties.

Saudi Arabia's Western allies, under increasing scrutiny for selling arms to the states fighting in Yemen, have not publicly made clear whether they approve of an assault on Hodeidah.

The offensive is controversial because the port serves as the entry point for 70% of Yemen's imports as the country teeters on the brink of starvation.

Meanwhile, according to The Wall Street Journal, there are signs that the U.S. military is deepening its role in the assault on Hudaydah, in spite of United Nations warnings of massive human casualties.

The Houthis deny they are Iranian pawns and say their revolt aims to target corruption and defend Yemen from invaders.

Yemen lies beside the southern mouth of the Red Sea, one of the world's most important trade routes, which oil tankers use to reach Europe from the Middle East through the Suez Canal.

The UAE's Gargash said plans were in place to keep the port operational and urged the global community to pressure the Houthis to evacuate and leave the port intact, without planting mines.

"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". The coalition said it wanted to halt the smuggling of weapons to the rebels by Iran - an accusation Tehran denied - but the closure of Hudaydah for several weeks resulted in sharp increases in prices of basic commodities, accelerating food insecurity.

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