A Saudi-led coalition has begun an assault on the Yemen port city of Hodeida with aid agencies warning 300,000 children are at risk of being killed or maimed.
Planes and warships began pounding Houthi rebel fortifications and forces massed around Hodeida on Wednesday as a deadline for Houthis to leave the city passed.
The Iran-backed Houthis hold both Hodeida and Yemen’s capital Sanaa and have been battling the Saudi-backed government of Yemen since 2014.
Charities have warned the targeting of Hodeida will begin an intractable and bloody new chapter in the conflict, trapping civilians and prompting the closure of the port to make famine a “very real possibility”.
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.
“The battle for Hodeidah will almost certainly result in a huge loss of civilian life and damage to vital infrastructure,” said Tamer Kirolos, Yemen Country Director for Save the Children.
“Families and children could be caught in the crossfire, unable to leave but in grave danger from bombs and bullets if they stay, trapped beyond the reach of humanitarian aid or medical care.”
The UN human rights office OHCHR estimates that at least 6,439 civilians have been killed and more than 10,000 injured since Saudi-backed forces began air strikes in Yemen in 2015.
It is estimated that around eight million are now at risk of starvation, and poor sanitation and medical supplies means cholera is spreading, with more than one million suspected cases by January 2018.
Yemen’s UN humanitarian coordinator Lise Grande said a “worst case” in an assault on Hodedia would mean 250,000 people “losing everything – even their lives”.
Humanitarian organisations had developed “contingency plans” for the event of an attack affecting the 600,000 people living in and around Hodeida, she said.
Khalid bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the US, said addressing the humanitarian situation effectively “requires liberating Yemen from the control of Houthi militias” which he said disrupt the flow and distribution of humanitarian supplies.
Joost Hilterman, program director for the Middle East for the International Crisis Group, said the future of the port city – and the war as a whole – had to be decided through negotiations, as a military defeat seemed unlikely.
With anti-government forces embedded in the city, military victory in Hodeida “seems a very tall order” and an assault on the city would only lead to further bloodshed, he warned.