Saudi and UAE-backed forces begin offensive on Yemen's Hodeidah

Red Sea port of Hodeidah Yemen

Yemeni forces backed by a Saudi-led coalition launched a major offensive on Wednesday to retake the rebel-held port city of Hodeida, despite United Nations warnings of a "catastrophic humanitarian impact".

The battle for Hodeidah is expected to be by far the biggest of a three-year war between an alliance of Arab states and the Iranian-backed Houthis.

In a statement responding to the potentially catastrophic attack on Hodeidah, Lindsey German, convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, took aim at both the U.S. and the United Kingdom for providing crucial political and military support for the Saudi-led assault, arguing that such complicity reveals "the true face of their foreign policy".

Social media users shared video of what appeared to be a convoy of vehicles approaching the crucial port city early Wednesday morning. The sound of heavy, sustained gunfire could be heard clearly in the background.

Hudaydah's port is the principal lifeline for just under two-thirds of Yemen's population, which is nearly totally reliant on imports of food, fuel and medicine.

Abu Dhabi's critics say the UAE military operations have focused on port cities to control commerce in the strategic region, not to drive out the Houthis.

Responding to the early stages of the attack-which began with an estimated 30 Saudi airstrikes within half an hour, guided by U.S. military intelligence-Win Without War wrote on Twitter that the attack is "a dark moment of shame for the United States".

The Trump administration last week was reportedly considering helping the UAE, which is part of the Saudi-led coalition, in an assault on Hodeidah.

Hadi's government said in a statement reported by Saudi media on Wednesday that all political and peaceful approaches to drive the Houthis out of Hodeidah had been exhausted.

A view of cranes, damaged by air strikes, at the container terminal of the Red Sea port of Hodeidah, Yemen November 30, 2017.

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Yemeni officials said government forces had headed to the eastern coast, aiming to cut off a rebel supply line between Hodeidah and the Houthi-held capital Sanaa. The port is some 150 kilometers (90 miles) southwest of Sanaa, Yemen's capital held by the Houthis since they swept into the city in September 2014.

The United Nations said it was engaged in "intense" shuttle diplomacy between the Houthis and coalition leaders Saudi Arabia and the UAE to avert an all-out attack.

Emirati Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash earlier told French newspaper Le Figaro the deadline for a withdrawal from Hudaida by the Houthis expired early on Wednesday morning.

The Security Council has strongly supported efforts by new United Nations special envoy Martin Griffiths to resume political negotiations and avoid a military escalation of the three-year-long conflict that has killed more than 10,000 people, displaced more than 2 million, and created the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

The Houthi militia has repeatedly fired missiles at Saudi Arabia, which the United States and UN experts say are of Iranian origin, a claim Tehran denies.

Humanitarian organisations had developed "contingency plans" for the event of an attack affecting the 600,000 people living in and around Hodeida, she said. However, Griffiths' recent appointment as envoy and his push for new negotiations might have encouraged the Saudi-led coalition to strengthen its hand ahead of any peace talks.

The UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) called on Wednesday for all sides to protect civilians.

Defence Secretary Jim Mattis on Monday acknowledged the USA continues to provide support to the Saudi-led coalition.

"It's providing any intel, or anything we can give to show no-fire areas where there are civilians, where there's mosques, hospitals, that sort of thing - [and] aerial refuelling, so nobody feels like I've got to drop the bomb and get back now", he said.

The Houthis, from a Shi'ite minority that ruled a thousand-year kingdom in Yemen until 1962, say they took power through a popular revolt and are now defending Yemen from invasion.

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