Fears for civilians rise as clashes rattle Yemen port city

Soldiers loyal to Saudi-led coalition forces are seen in the southern Yemeni port of Aden. Photograph:( AFP )

AFP Aden, Yemen Nov 06, 2018, 06.34 PM (IST)

Government troops and rebels clashed again Tuesday near a Yemeni port city crucial for humanitarian aid, where hundreds of thousands of civilians could be trapped as war closes in.

Five days of battles between Iran-linked Huthi rebels and the army, allied with a regional military coalition led by Saudi Arabia, have left more than 150 combatants dead in the Red Sea province of Hodeida.

A spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition on Monday said the government alliance had no plans to launch a full offensive to retake Hodeida.

But multiple military officials on the ground reported their troops had encircled the rebel-held city.

The rebels have also confirmed fierce fighting in the area via their Al-Masirah television station.

The fighting comes as the United Nations pushes to restart negotiations between warring parties, after talks collapsed in Geneva in September.

Hodeida is one of the last Huthi strongholds on Yemen's western coastline. The rebels seized the port, along with the capital, in 2014.

The rival Saudi-led camp, a powerful military alliance that includes the United Arab Emirates, has since retaken most of the country's ports.

'Never-ending nightmare'

The United Nations' children's fund (UNICEF) -- which has called Yemen a "living hell" -- this week warned an assault on Hodeida would jeopardise the lives of people in the city and across the country.

The port of Hodeida is crucial for aid delivery and food imports to Yemen, where famine looms over 14 million people and a child dies every 10 minutes, according to the UN.

Medics at hospitals in the Hodeida neighbourhood of Bajil reported they had received the bodies of 49 Huthi rebels on Tuesday morning.

Hospitals in government-held Mokha, south of Hodeida, said 15 soldiers had been killed.

Rights groups warn the worst could be yet to come in Hodeida.

"The past days have... seen fierce fighting and air strikes pick up in the vicinity of Hodeida city, threatening to further deteriorate civilians' access to safety and aid," the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) warned on Monday night.

Save the Children reported almost 100 air strikes counted by its staff at the weekend -- five times as many as in the whole first week of October.

The NRC warned the fighting around Hodeida city threatened "to further deteriorate civilians' access to safety and aid".

Failing economy

The poorest country in the Arab world, Yemen is now home to what the UN calls the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

Nearly 14 million people are at risk of famine as the war nears its fourth year.

The World Health Organization says 10,000 people have been killed since the Saudi-led coalition intervened on the side of the government in 2015.

Yemen's government on Tuesday approved new budget and tax collection measures aimed at bolstering the central bank as looming famine threatens millions.

The cabinet backed the formation of a committee tasked with setting the government budget for 2019, according to state news agency Saba.

It also passed a resolution pushing for the collection of owed taxes and customs "on all taxable imports at all land, sea and air ports in liberated areas", or areas under government control.

The Yemeni riyal has plunged more than 36 percent in 2018, despite a $2-billion deposit in the central bank by Saudi Arabia aimed at saving the currency.

The riyal's slide has triggered a sharp rise in the prices of commodities, especially food and fuel, leaving millions unable to afford basic staples.