A Saudi-led coalition backing Yemen's exiled government began an assault Wednesday morning on Yemen's port city of Hodeida, a crucial battle in the 3-year-old conflict that aid agency warned could push the Arab world's poorest country into further chaos.
Emirati forces with Yemeni government troops moved in from the south near Hodeida's airport, while others sought to cut off Houthi supply lines to the east, the officials said.
Saudi-led coalition warplanes and Apache helicopters provided "continuous" air support to pro-government forces, striking Huthi positions, military sources said.
The United Arab Emirates, one of the main members of the Western-backed alliance, has set a Tuesday deadline for the Iran-aligned Houthis to withdraw from the port of Hodeidah under U.N. -led negotiations or face an assault.
Yemeni residents in the Red Sea port city of Hodeida say the Saudi-led coalition has dropped leaflets advising them to stay away from military and security points, and to stay in their homes, amid the coalition's assault.
UNICEF's Director General, Henrietta Fore, said that apart from the 300,00 children at risk in Hodeida millions more children throughout Yemen depend on the humanitarian and commercial goods that come through that port every day for their very survival.
The plan, announced in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, late Wednesday, includes establishing routes for food, medical supplies and oil shipments to Hodeida from Saudi Arabia's southern city of Jizan and the UAE's capital, Abu Dhabi.
Saudi-Led Alliance Gears up for Assault on Key Yemeni Port City
The new United Nations envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, tweeted that he was "extremely concerned" by the violence, calling on all parties to exercise restraint.
Yemeni forces backed by troops from the United Arab Emirates launched the assault despite UN warnings of a "catastrophic humanitarian impact". The port is 90 miles south west of Sanaa, Yemen's capital, which has been in Houthi hands since September 2014. The Saudi-led coalition entered the war in March 2015.
Col. Turki al-Malki, a Saudi military spokesman, said coalition forces were some six kilometers (three miles) from the airfield, in an interview with the Saudi-owned satellite news channel Al Arabiya.
United Nations spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters at United Nations headquarters in NY on Wednesday that aid partners are delivering 70,000 rapid response kits to "humanitarian service points" in and around Hodeida for newly displaced families. He said the U.N. Security Council must act to secure a cease-fire before the people of Hodeida "suffer the same fate as those in Aleppo, Mosul or Raqqa". "We already gave the United Nations the chance to operate from this seaport, and (the Houthis) refused".
The UN on Monday withdrew all of its worldwide staff from Hodeida ahead of the impending assault, warning that any offensive would put millions of lives at risk. The sound of heavy, sustained gunfire clearly could be heard in the background.
The U.N. says some 600,000 people live in and around Hodeida, and "as many as 250,000 people may lose everything - even their lives" in the assault.
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