By Mohamed Mokhashef and Mohammed Ghobari
ADEN (Reuters) – A Saudi-led coalition geared up on Tuesday for a military assault on Yemen’s main port, preparing to launch by far the biggest battle of a three-year war between an alliance of Arab states and the Houthi movement that controls Yemen’s capital.
The United Arab Emirates, a key member of the Western-backed alliance, set a Tuesday deadline for the Iran-aligned Houthis to withdraw from the port of Hodeida under U.N.-led talks.
“These are the last and final hours to get unconditional guarantees that the Houthis will leave the port,” UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash told Reuters, but he declined to discuss military operations.
“If the current situation continues we will have a stalemate politically…The last thing we want is to prolong the war in Yemen.”
It would be the first time since the foreign armies joined the war in 2015 on behalf of Yemen’s exiled government that they have attempted to capture such a well-defended major city.
Hodeidah, Yemen’s biggest Red Sea port and the only one under Houthi control, serves as the lifeline for the majority of Yemen’s population, which lives in Houthi territory.
The United Nations said it was engaged in “intense” shuttle diplomacy between the Houthis, Saudi Arabia and the UAE to avert the attack, which it fears could exacerbate what it says is the world’s most urgent humanitarian crisis.
It estimates that 600,000 people live in the area, and in a worst-case scenario a battle could cost up to 250,000 lives, as well as cutting off millions of people facing starvation and disease from aid and supplies.
Gargash said the coalition had clear plans to keep the port operational and, in a separate post on Twitter, urged the international community to pressure the Houthis to evacuate and leave the port intact, without planting mines.
Emirati-led troops have advanced along the southwestern coast to the outskirts of Hodeidah under a strategy to box in the Houthis in the capital Sanaa and cut off their supply lines and force them to the negotiating table.
Local military sources said hundreds of Yemeni fighters as well as tanks and gear from the UAE arrived on Monday to reinforce troops, including Emiratis and Sudanese, in al-Durayhmi, a rural area 10 km (6.21 miles) south of Hodeidah.
The sources said UAE-backed Yemeni forces – drawn from southern separatists, local units from the Red Sea coastal plain and a battalion led by a nephew of late former president Ali Abdullah Saleh – were “at the doors” of Hodeidah airport.
The Houthi official responsible for foreign affairs, Hisham Sharaf, said the advance was a military escalation aimed at hampering U.N. efforts, Houthi-run media said.
The Sunni Muslim Gulf states intervened in Yemen to restore the exiled government and thwart what Riyadh and Abu Dhabi see as expansionist objectives of their Shi’ite foe Iran.
The Houthis deny they are Iranian pawns and say their revolt is against corruption and defending Yemen from invaders.
“I think the Emiratis have done a good job in presenting compelling arguments about why an operation (on Hodeidah) could in the end tip the balance and apply enough pressure to bring the Houthis to the table,” a Western diplomat said on Monday.
“The Emiratis’ preparedness is crucial in this. This is possibly what we’re most concerned about.”
European donor governments warned aid groups in Yemen on Saturday that the UAE had given a 3-day grace period for the “U.N. (and their partners) to leave the city”, according to the message seen by Reuters.
The United Nations relocated foreign staff members from Hodeidah on Monday, although other aid workers remain.
Saudi Arabia’s Western allies, which sell arms to coalition states, have not said publicly if they approve of the assault.
Riyadh says the Houthis use the port to smuggle in Iranian-made weapons, including missiles that have targeted Saudi cities – accusations denied by the group and Tehran. Independent U.N. experts reported in January that Houthi missiles they had examined had been manufactured in Iran.
Houthi leader Abdul Malik al-Houthi has warned the group will attack oil tankers in the event of an assault on Hodeidah.
The coalition says one of the main justifications for its intervention is to protect Red Sea shipping.
(Additional reporting by Yara Bayoumy in Washington; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Peter Graff/Mark Heinrich)