Saudi envoy: Hodeidah's liberation will replenish major lifeline for Yemenis

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The Saudi-led coalition and forces loyal to the former president Hadi have launched an assault on Yemen's main port city of Hodeidah, one of the remaining humanitarian lifelines in the war-torn country, local news outlets report. The Saudi-led coalition backs the exiled government of Yemen, as it battles Iran-backed Shia rebels.

Neither the coalition nor the rebels have confirmed the death of the leader's brother, the Saudi Khabar Ajil media said.

Yemen has been engulfed in a civil war since Iranian-backed Houthis overthrew the Yemeni government and seized control of the capitol three years ago.

UAE's Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash earlier told French newspaper Le Figaro the deadline for a withdrawal from Al Hodeida by the Houthis expired early on Wednesday morning. "Not only does the IRC and other humanitarian aid agencies have staff on the ground working to deliver lifesaving aid, but 400,000 innocent civilian lives are at stake", Frank McManus, the Yemen country director for the International Rescue Committee, said in a statement on Wednesday.

"(He) called for restraint from all the belligerents and to protect civilians", his office said.

ICRC spokesperson Iolanda Jaquemet spoke to TRT World.

Yemeni government forces say the port is being used for smuggling weapons into Yemen - but it is also an entry point for 70% of Yemen's imports and aid including medicines, food and fuel.

"We fear that a prolonged attack or siege on Hodeidah could be catastrophic for civilians", Lise Grande, the UN's head Yemen humanitarian coordinator, previously told the Wall Street Journal, adding that 250,000 of the city's 400,000 people could be killed.

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After the assault on Hudaydah began, Ms Grande reminded all parties to the conflict that under worldwide humanitarian law they had to "do everything possible to protect civilians and ensure they have access to the assistance they need to survive". The support has continued despite worldwide alarm over the coalition's air campaign against the Houthis, which has killed thousands of civilians in airstrikes that human rights groups have alleged are frequently indiscriminate.

Riyadh says the Houthis use the port to smuggle Iranian-made weapons, including missiles that have been launched at Saudi cities - accusations denied by the group and Tehran.

Reem al-Hashimy, the UAE minister of state for worldwide cooperation, has said if the port is wrested from the Houthis, the coalition could ease controls aimed at denying the group arms and ease the flow of goods and aid into Yemen, where millions face starvation and disease. A Saudi-led airstrike in 2015 destroyed cranes at Hodeida.

CARE International, one of the few aid agencies still there, said 30 air strikes hit the city within half an hour.

Humanitarian organisations had developed "contingency plans" for the event of an attack affecting the 600,000 people living in and around Hodeida, she said. "We thought it could not get any worse, but unfortunately we were wrong".

Martin Griffiths, United Nations special envoy to Yemen, wrote on Wednesday that he is "extremely concerned" with the Saudi-led military escalation and said he is working with both parties to avert further disaster.

USA officials, however, have been skeptical of coalition assertions that Iranian missiles are being smuggled to the Houthis through the Hodeida port, which is subject to a United Nations inspections program.

"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.