SANAA, Yemen – Yemeni fighters backed by the United Arab Emirates said they seized the southern runway of the international airport near the key Yemeni city of Hodeida, as fighting raged Wednesday between pro-government forces backed by a Saudi-led coalition and Iranian-backed Shiite Houthi rebels.
The Amaleqa brigades, a fighting force backed by the coalition that includes the UAE, also said in a statement they seized areas on the west and east sides of the airport. They have been advancing toward an area near Kilo 16 road, aiming to cut off the link between Hodeida and the capital Sanaa, a statement said.
Col. Turki al-Malki, coalition spokesman, claimed the forces took over the airport and that Yemeni forces are currently clearing the airport of Houthi land-mines. He added in a statement that there were no civilian casualties in the fighting and that after liberation of the airport, the coalition will press the Houthis to accept a political settlement.
Yemeni officials said Saudi-led coalition warplanes have been hitting parts of the airport including the main compound, where the rebels are holed up. They confirmed that government forces have been clearing land mines the Houthis used to slow the forces' advance.
Meanwhile, fierce battles ensued in the ad-Durayhimi district outside Hodeida, about 12.5 miles south of the airport, the officials said.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief media.
Hodeida is some 90 miles southwest of Sanaa, Yemen's capital.
The Saudi-led coalition launched the campaign to retake Hodeida last Wednesday, with Emirati troops leading the force of government soldiers and irregular militia fighters backing Yemen's exiled government. Saudi Arabia has provided air support, with targeting guidance and refueling from the U.S.
The campaign to seize control of Hodeida threatens to worsen Yemen's humanitarian situation.
The offensive has faced criticism from international aid groups, who fear a protracted fight could force a shutdown of the port and potentially tip millions into starvation. Some 70 percent of Yemen's food enters via the port, as well as the bulk of humanitarian aid and fuel supplies. Around two-thirds of the country's population of 27 million relies on aid and 8.4 million are at risk of starving.
The Houthis seized control of Sanaa in September 2014, later pushing south toward the port city of Aden. The Saudi-led coalition entered the conflict in March 2015 and has faced criticism for a campaign of airstrikes that has killed civilians and destroyed hospitals and markets.
The Houthis, meanwhile, have laid land mines, killing and wounding civilians, targeted religious minorities and imprisoned opponents.