Human rights groups have warned that an attack by the Saudi-led coalition and allied forces on the Yemeni port city of Hudaida could destroy the country’s main lifeline and worsen a humanitarian crisis already described by the UN as the largest in the world.
Saudi Arabia, together with several other Arab nations, launched a military campaign in 2015 in support of Yemen’s internationally recognised government aiming to roll back advances made by Houthi rebels after they overran much of the country in 2014.
Most countries have since withdrawn their forces from the coalition, with only Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates conducting attacks in Yemen.
Hudaida lies some 230km away from the capital, Sanaa, which is controlled by the Houthis.
In recent days, pro-government forces have closed in on the city, driving the rebels from dozens of nearby towns and villages amid growing fears that an all-out assault is imminent.
Aid agencies say it is the city’s location on the Red Sea that makes it such a strategic prize. If the Saudi-led coalition takes over, it would effectively be in control of Yemen’s most vital lifeline and the main gateway for imports of relief supplies and commercial goods.
An alarming 22.2 million people in Yemen need some kind of humanitarian or protection assistance, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
About 90 percent of Yemen’s food and most of its medicine is imported through Hudaida, Yemen’s third largest city and home to about 400,000 people.
Jan Egeland, secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, equated Hudaida to what Rotterdam historically represented for the Netherlands and Liverpool for the United Kingdom.
“It’s the place where things come into all the civilian population in Yemen, a country that basically has to import all food,” Egeland told Al Jazeera from Norway’s capital, Oslo.
He said a potential attack by the coalition would make the situation “much worse”.
“In many ways, Yemen is today the country on Earth where there is the highest number of people who are food insecure [and] who are on the brink of famine,” he added.
“We must avoid war at all costs in Hudaida, not only because of the hundreds of thousands of people who would get in the crossfire but also because the port will be destroyed and the lifeline will be destroyed.”
‘Respect civilian lives’
Riyadh sees Hudaida port as the entry point of weaponry for the Houthis and has accused its regional rival Iran of sending missiles to the rebels, a charge Tehran has denied. Aid agencies say, 200,000 people – about half of Hudaida’s population – could be displaced if fighting breaks out in the centre.
A statement by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on Thursday raised concern for civilians in the densely populated city.
“People are afraid of the fighting within their city and making an already catastrophic situation even worse,” the statement said.
“The ICRC is [in] line with international humanitarian law urges all the parties to the conflict to respect civilian lives by taking every possible measure to protect civilians”
— ICRC Yemen (@ICRC_ye) May 31, 2018
For his part, Egeland suggested that the city ought to be internationally-administered, given its significance to the wellbeing of the civilian population, and asked that key powers increase pressure to the warring parties in order to bring about a political solution to the conflict, which has killed more than 10,000 people.
“What we asked for is that the United States, the United Kingdom and France who have influence over the Saudi-led coalition – they sell arms, they have close military relations, close diplomatic and intelligence cooperation – guarantee that attacks stop.
“On the other hand, Iran who are close to the Houthis, they haven’t either done what they should do to de-escalate the fighting,” he added.
“We need a ceasefire and peace talks to succeed.”