Yemen’s government has stressed its determination to proceed with the liberation of al-Hodeidah and all other areas controlled by the Houthis (Ansarallah) if they do not respond to international efforts to bring peace.
The UAE, a key member of the Arab coalition fighting in support of Yemen's government, on Monday (June 18th) warned the Iran-backed militia to withdraw from the key Red Sea port, AFP reported.
The al-Hodeidah port operation will continue unless the Houthis "withdraw unconditionally", said UAE minister of state for foreign affairs Anwar Gargash.
The Arab coalition has kept the al-Hodeidah-Sanaa road "open for the Houthi militias to withdraw", he said, adding that the operation aims to pressure the Houthis to withdraw from the city and avoid civilian casualties.
Speaking after UN ceasefire efforts in Yemen appeared to have fizzled over the weekend, he said the continuation of the operation aims to help UN special envoy Martin Griffiths "in his last chance to convince the Houthis to withdraw unconditionally from the city and avoid any confrontation", he said.
"If this does not happen, be assured we are determined to achieve our targets," he said. "This is not the time to negotiate."
After two days of talks in Sanaa, Griffiths was due to brief the UN Security Council Monday on his efforts to end the crisis over al-Hodeidah.
The Houthis said the talks had failed, and the head of their unofficial government rejected a ceasefire under current conditions after meeting Griffiths on Sunday.
Pro-government forces advance
"Houthi militias are proceeding with their hard-line policies and rejection of mediation efforts made by [Griffiths] to persuade them to peacefully withdraw from al-Hodeidah city and port," Yemen's government said in a statement.
The government said it would therefore proceed with the push to retake al-Hodeidah and all other areas controlled by the Iran-backed militia.
Griffiths arrived in Sanaa on Saturday to try to persuade the Houthis to withdraw from al-Hodeidah and put the strategic port under UN administration.
According to the BBC, the UN envoy had drawn up a plan that would ensure the Houthis safely withdraw and military operations are stopped so civilians may be spared further aggravation of the humanitarian situation.
Yemen’s Defence Ministry said the army continued to advance on al-Hodeidah from several sides, having on Sunday advanced towards Kilo 16 to encircle it and move towards the airport and port from the north.
At the same time, joint forces reached the southern and eastern parts of al-Hodeidah airport, after engaging in fierce battles on Saturday, the ministry said.
The army is in almost full control of most of the areas around the airport, where some Houthi fighters are barricaded, according to 26sepnews.net, and intends to storm it and remove them.
According to the ministry, the Houthis have impeded the advance of pro-government forces by planting landmines and digging tunnels within the airport.
Battle for al-Hodeidah airport
Politicians and observers said the joint forces’ recapture of al-Hodeidah airport would signal the fall of the city and Red Sea port to pro-government forces.
"Al-Hodeidah airport and its military base are the most important sites in town because they control the southern area of the city and its western coast," political researcher Munir Talal told Al-Mashareq.
"Additionally, the airport is the source of military supplies, which Houthis rely on for sustaining the flow of supplies to fronts in adjacent areas," he said.
"Al-Hodeidah has almost fallen to the joint forces and [Arab] coalition," Talal said, adding that "it is only a matter of time" before it is retaken.
"Houthis have no other option but to fight, because making concessions will not benefit them, and will expose them to setbacks before their supporters," he said. "In addition, Iran is pushing them to forge ahead."
The fall of the airport would mean half the battle has been resolved, said Abaad Studies and Research Centre head Abdul Salam Mohammed.
"However, I believe the pro-government forces will not focus on recapturing the airport and taking up positions there," he told Al-Mashareq.
"They want the port, and therefore will surround it, towards Kilo 16, and besiege the airport from three sides and leave the northern direction for Houthis to flee," he said. "Afterwards, they will gradually clear it of landmines.”
Houthis' failure to respond
Of the Houthis’ failure to respond to the UN envoy’s initiative, Mohammed said the militia is "now betting on somehow penetrating the pro-government camp or the occurrence of a setback [for the pro-government forces]".
The Houthis "also hope to receive support from Iran, because they know it is a strategic battle", he added.
"[The Houthis] believe the UN and other humanitarian organisations will exercise pressures to prevent a catastrophe," he said. "Moreover, they are betting on exhausting the pro-government forces with the blood that is spilled."
General People’s Congress member Adel al-Shujaa expressed his surprise over the Houthis’ failure to quickly respond to the UN envoy’s initiative to stop fighting, hand over al-Hodeidah and its port, and engage in peace negotiations.
"The UN special envoy has returned to Sanaa at their request," he told Al-Mashareq.
Yemen’s government, backed by the Arab coalition and national and pro-government forces on Wednesday kicked off Operation Golden Victory to liberate al-Hodeidah and its strategic port.
The port, controlled by the Houthis, is a key conduit for humanitarian aid, but the Houthis have been using it to receive weapons smuggled from Iran.