UAE says ultimatum on Yemen port of Hodeidah expires Tuesday night

Battle for Yemen's biggest port under way

Troops backed by a Saudi-led coalition on Wednesday launched an assault on Yemen's main port city of Hodeidah, in the biggest battle of a three-year war between an alliance of Arab states and the Houthis.

Hodeida is controlled by Houthi rebels who are fighting the Saudi-led coalition, and the coalition believes the port has been key to the rebels smuggling in arms.

The assault is the first time since the Western-backed coalition of mostly Gulf states joined the war in 2015 that they have attempted to capture such a well-defended major city, with the aim of boxing in the Houthis in Sanaa and cutting their supply lines to force them to the negotiating table.

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.

"Liberation of the port of Hodeidah is a milestone in our struggle", the statement reads.

The Saudi-led coalition has been criticised for its air strikes which have killed civilians.

More than 10,000 people have been killed since Saudi Arabia led a bombing campaign against the Houthis.

"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, UN humanitarian co-ordinator for Yemen.

The U.N.'s humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, Lise Grande, warned that a prolonged siege of the port could lead to the deaths of up to a quarter-million Yemenis due to starvation and disease.

Saudi Arabia views the Houthis as Iranian proxies, but the rebels deny receiving military support from Tehran. Some 8.4 million people in Yemen face pre-famine conditions, according to the World Health Organization.

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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.

And just to the north is the Ras Isa oil terminal - which served the Marib oilfields and was the country's main export terminal - and the nearby port of Saleef. This has made it by far the most important port for humanitarian aid, with estimates that as much as 70% of aid comes through the port.

"More than two-thirds of the people of Yemen count on the food that is imported through the port of Hudaida", Veldwijk said.

In fact, the Trump Administration has become an increasingly vocal backer of the coalition, sharing its concerns about Iranian support for the Houthis, and in deference to close military partners like the United Arab Emirates.

Such action was "the Houthi response to worldwide calls for their peaceful retreat", he added.

The United Nations and aids groups have been scrambling to stall the attack, warning that an assault on Hodeidah could spiral out of control, compounding already arguably the worst humanitarian disaster in the world. "Parties to the conflict must now prepare to bear responsibility for any violations of International Humanitarian Law, particularly the targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructures such as medical facilities, schools and the port facilities, for which the U.N. Security Council must ensure accountability".

Yemen has been in crisis since 2011 mass protests that ended Saleh's 33-year rule.

Mr Hadi came to power in a Saudi-brokered transition, but the Houthis drove him out.

It noted that pro-government forces took months to consolidate control over the small coastal town of Mocha a year ago, and that the Houthis were entrenched in Hudaydah and likely to try to hold on to the city for as long as possible. Parts of Yemen are also held by Al-Qaeda and ISIS.

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