UNITED NATIONS - Friday marks the third day of fighting in a Saudi-led campaign to retake the Yemeni key port city of Hodeida from Shiite rebels known as Houthis.
Human Rights Watch wants the U.N. Security Council to let all warring parties know they will face sanctions if they block civilian access to humanitarian aid.
"The coalition and Houthi forces, now fighting for Hodeida, have atrocious records abiding by the laws of war," HRW's Sarah Leah Whitson warned Friday.
The Norwegian Refugee Council's Acting Country Director Christopher Mzembe said, "As air strikes intensify and front lines move closer to Hodeida city, so does the very real threat of harm to civilians in Hodeida."
On Thursday, the Security Council called on the warring factions in Yemen to keep Hodeida open, as humanitarians tried to deliver critical assistance to about 600,000 civilians in the city.
Council members held the emergency closed-door session after the Saudi-led coalition began airstrikes on Hodeida early Wednesday, after what coalition partner the United Arab Emirates said was the expiration of a deadline for Iranian-backed Houthi rebels to surrender the critical Red Sea port.
“It is time for the Security Council to call for an immediate freeze of the military attack on Hodeida,” Swedish U.N. envoy Carl Skau said ahead of the meeting. “This is needed to give the [U.N.] Special Envoy and United Nations-led efforts a chance to avert disaster and find a sustainable political solution to the conflict.”
U.N. Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths had been shuttling around the region trying to prevent the offensive, which the U.N. warns could have catastrophic consequences on a country where 22 million people already require assistance and is the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. He is due to brief the council on Monday.
The U.N. has evacuated dozens of staff from Hodeida, but work continues through local partners.
“Yesterday, even as the city was being shelled and bombarded, a U.N.-contracted vessel, which is docked at Hodeida port, off-loaded thousands of metric tons of food,” U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen, Lise Grande, said in a statement.
Grande said two more vessels are waiting to do the same. Humanitarians have been preparing for a possible assault for weeks and have pre-positioned food, water, fuel and other emergency supplies.
Hodeida is a lifeline for the poverty-stricken country, which imports 90 percent of its food, fuel and medicines – 70 percent of which come through the city’s port. The Houthis have controlled Hodeida for the last two years.
Despite an international arms embargo against the rebels, the coalition accuses them of using the port to smuggle weapons into the country, a charge the Houthis deny.
“We believe the coalition operations can create the right dynamic under the Yemeni government leadership to advance the work of the U.N. Special envoy Martin Griffiths in support of his peace plan,” UAE U.N. Ambassador Lana Nusseibeh told reporters.
“We don’t think there is a military solution to the conflict in Yemen, but we think every time we push hard, the Houthis accept to engage,” Yemen’s new foreign minister, Khaled Hussein Alyemany, told reporters in New York.
The coalition has expressed concern that the Houthis may try to blow up the seaport if they are forced out of the area. Alyemany said he has expressed this concern to U.N. envoy Griffiths and asked him to push the Houthis to respect international humanitarian law, which prohibits the destruction of vital civilian infrastructure.
Alyemany said coalition forces are not targeting the port as part of their offensive. “We are not planning to destroy the infrastructure; we are not planning to cause a major humanitarian impact,” he said.
Saudi Arabia began bombing Houthi rebels in support of the Yemeni government in March 2015. Since then, the U.N. estimates more than 10,000 people have been killed, mostly due to airstrikes.