SANAA, YEMEN - Yemeni officials say Saudi-led forces have seized the airport in Yemen’s rebel-held port city of Hodeida.
The military loyal to Yemen’s exiled government issued a statement Saturday morning saying that engineers now were trying to remove mines left by the Shiite rebels known as Houthis.
The Houthis did not immediately acknowledge losing the airport.
Hodeida International Airport is on the south side of the city home to some 600,000. So far, fighting has yet to enter Hodeida’s downtown or its crucial port.
?Death toll climbs
The death toll climbed to at least 280 on the third day of the campaign aimed at driving out the Iranian-backed Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, from the Red Sea port of Hodeida that is the main entry point for food and aid supplies in a country teetering on the brink of famine.
The Saudi-Emirati coalition bombed Houthi positions while rebels said in a statement that they fired a ballistic missile at pro-government forces, but gave no report of causalities.
The fighting comes at a time when Muslims around the world are celebrating the Eid al-Fitr holiday at the end of the holy month of Ramadan. But in Hodeida, people were stockpiling what little food they could for fear of an imminent siege and streets were empty except for beggars and fighters.
Yemeni officials said dozens of pro-government fighters have been killed since the assault began Wednesday, mainly from land mines and roadside bombs disguised as rocks or sacks of wheat. On the rebel side, bodies of Houthi fighters were strewn across the front lines.
Aid workers worry
Aid workers have warned the assault on Hodieda’s port, known as the “mouth of Yemen,” could shut down the vital route for some 70 percent of Yemen’s food and humanitarian aid. Two-thirds of Yemen’s population of 27 million relies on aid and 8.4 million are at risk of starving.
The Saudi-led coalition accuses the Houthis of using the port to smuggle weapons and missiles from Iran. The rebels have been raining ballistic missiles down on Saudi cities from across the border. The port is also a lucrative source of revenue for the Houthis, who have controlled most of northern Yemen since 2014.
The United Arab Emirates’ minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, said that the battle over Hodeida is essential to break a stalemate in the civil war, which otherwise could drag on for years.
Seizing the port “means that the Houthis will no longer be able to impose their will at the barrel of a gun,” he said in a post on Twitter. “If they keep Hodeida and its revenues and its strategic location, the war will last a long time and (add to) the suffering of the Yemeni people.”
The U.S., which has backed the Saudi-led coalition with intelligence, logistical support and aerial refueling of fighter jets, has not publicly opposed the assault but has urged the coalition to ensure that humanitarian aid deliveries to the port continue.
Washington however rejected three requests by the UAE to increase its support to the coalition with logistics, intelligence, and mine-sweeping operations.
Marine Maj. Adrian Rankine Galloway, a Pentagon spokesman, said the U.S. has continued to provide aerial refueling for coalition aircraft and intelligence assistance. That aid includes information on key civilian sites that should not be targeted in order to avoid civilian casualties.
“We are not directly supporting the coalition offensive on the port of Hodeida,” Rankine Galloway said. “The United States does not command, accompany or participate in counter-Houthi operations or any hostilities other than those authorized” against al-Qaida and Islamic State militants in Yemen.