Saudi Arabia, UAE, launch attack on Yemen's port city of Hudaida

A view of the Red Sea port of Hodeidah Yemen

Saudi media is reporting that the official start of the attack on the Yemeni port of Hodeidah.

Hodeidah, the only Yemeni port controlled by the Houthis, serves as a lifeline channeling food, medicines and other vital imports to the majority of Yemenis who live in Houthi-ruled territory.

Early on Wednesday, Yemeni government forces, backed by the Saudi-led coalition, launched a full-scale offensive to seize Hodeidah, which is a strategic stronghold of the Houthi rebels and a key entry point for humanitarian aid.

"The battle for Hodeidah will nearly certainly result in a huge loss of civilian life and damage to vital infrastructure", said Tamer Kirolos, Yemen Country Director for Save the Children.

Saudi Arabia's Western allies, which sell arms to coalition states, have not said publicly if they approve of the assault.

United Nations refugee chief Filippo Grandi said there was a danger Yemenis might flee across the sea to Somalia or Djibouti. However, Griffiths' recent appointment as envoy and his push for new negotiations may have encouraged the Saudi-led coalition to strengthen its hand ahead of any peace talks with the Houthis.

The UAE's Gargash said plans were in place to keep the port operational and urged the worldwide community to pressure the Houthis to evacuate and leave the port intact, without planting mines. Officials also want to make sure aid is provided immediately.

The Arab coalition - which includes Saudi Arabia and the UAE - intervened in the Yemen war in 2015 at the request of the internationally-recognised government of Yemeni President Abdrabu Mansur Hadi.

The United Nations on Monday withdrew its worldwide staff from Al Hudaydah, saying an attack would "impact hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians".

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"The humanitarian risks inherent in attacking the city have been emphasized numerously in appeals by humanitarians, which have been ignored", he said.

After the assault on Hudaydah began, Ms Grande reminded all parties to the conflict that under global humanitarian law they had to "do everything possible to protect civilians and ensure they have access to the assistance they need to survive".

They said civilian harm and damage to the port were "unacceptable consequences for any responsible member of the community of nations".

The sources said Yemeni forces allied to the Saudi-led coalition - drawn from southern separatists, local units from the Red Sea coastal plain and a battalion led by a nephew of late former president Ali Abdullah Saleh - had advanced and were "at the doors" of Hodeidah airport. The Saudi-led coalition has been criticized for its airstrikes killing civilians. UAE forces fight alongside U.S. Special Operations forces in a separate counterterrorism mission in Yemen focused on al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on Monday acknowledged the U.S. continues to provide support to the Saudi-led coalition. 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.

Speaking to reporters this week, Mattis said that USA support would continue at its current levels, and suggested US aerial refueling, which lengthens flight times, increased the accuracy of Saudi and UAE bombing raids and so cut down on civilian casualties.

"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.

Ryan reported from Washington.

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