The Saudi-led coalition backing Yemen's exiled government captured a town south of the port city of Hodeida on Thursday as fierce fighting and airstrikes pounded the area on the second day of an offensive to capture the strategic harbor that is the main entry point for food in a country teetering on the brink of starvation.
Late Thursday, Yemen's Foreign Minister Khaled Alyemany told a group of United Nations reporters in NY that military operations by the Saudi-led coalition are not taking place near the port but in an area close to the airport.
The biggest offensive of the years-long war in the Arab world's poorest nation has raised warnings from aid agencies that Yemen's humanitarian disaster could deepen.
"Such hostile acts by the Iran-backed Houthi militias prove the continuing involvement of the Iranian regime in supporting the Houthi militias with qualitative capabilities in a flagrant and explicit violation of the two United Nations resolutions No. 2216 and 2231 with the objective of threatening the security of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as well as the regional and worldwide stability".
"Some civilians are entrapped, others forced from their homes", said Jolien Veldwijk, the acting country director of the aid group CARE International, which works in Hodeida.
"I am extremely concerned about military escalation in #Hodeida & their humanitarian & political impact", he said in a tweet.
Early on Wednesday, convoys of vehicles headed towards the rebel-held city as heavy gunfire rang out.
Saudi-owned satellite news channels later announced the battle had begun, citing military sources.
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Hodeida is a lifeline for the majority of Yemen's population and aid agencies earlier this week had warned of a humanitarian catastrophe if the attack went ahead.
This week US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a brief statement about the Trump administration's willingness to address the "security concerns" of the coalition leaders while "preserving the free flow of humanitarian aid and life-saving commercial imports".
Hodeida is some 150 kilometers (90 miles) southwest of Sanaa, Yemen's capital, which has been in Houthi hands since September 2014.
The Red Sea port serves as the entry point for 70 percent of Yemen's imports as the country teeters on the brink of starvation. A Saudi-led coalition entered the conflict in March 2015. The UN Security Council is scheduled to meet to discuss the offensive. It says the lives of 250,000 residents are threatened.
On Thursday, the International Committee of the Red Cross said it had pulled 71 staff members out of Yemen after a series of security incidents and threats.
Yemen's government declared Tuesday night that negotiations had failed to force the rebels from Hodeida, and that a grace period for UN-led peace efforts was over.
The United Nations and other aid groups already had pulled their worldwide staff from Hodeida ahead of the rumored assault.
"We do not provide any additional support to the Saudi coalition's military operations", he said.