SANAA, Yemen – Yemeni fighters backed by the United Arab Emirates said they seized the southern runway of the international airport near Yemen's port city of Hodeida, as fighting raged Wednesday between pro-government forces backed by a Saudi-led coalition and Iranian-backed rebels.
The coalition launched an offensive a week ago to retake the port city, which handles 70 percent of impoverished Yemen's food imports. Aid groups have expressed alarm about the operation, but so far coalition forces remain bogged down in battles south of the city, and the port has remained open.
The Amaleqa brigades, a fighting force backed by the coalition that includes the UAE, said it seized areas on the west and east sides of the airport. The group has been advancing toward an area near Kilo 16 road, aiming to cut off the link between Hodeida and the rebel-held capital, Sanaa.
Col. Turki al-Malki, a coalition spokesman, said its forces took over the airport and are clearing Houthi land-mines. He added in a statement that there were no civilian casualties in the fighting, and said that after capturing the airport, the coalition will press the rebels 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.
Fierce battles were also underway in the al-Durayhimi district outside Hodeida, about 20 kilometers (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.
The top leader of the rebels, known as Houthis, meanwhile vowed to continue the fight against the Saudi-led coalition and accused the United States and other Western countries of playing a direct role in the Hodeida offensive.
"Whatever forces they deploy, even if they bring the world's armies, we will not submit or collapse," Abdel-Malek al-Houthi said in a speech aired by the Houthi-run al-Masirah TV. He said that earlier rebel attacks on warships in the Red Sea are aimed at "deterring the aggression."
"America, Britain, and France have a direct role in the western coast battles," he added.
Hodeida, home to 600,000 people, is some 150 kilometers (90 miles) southwest of Sanaa.
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.
Aid groups 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.
Stephane Dujarric, the spokesman for the U.N. secretary-general, warned Wednesday that if the fighting reaches more urban areas, "civilians will be at greater risk, including from the spread of disease, including cholera."
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. They have also targeted religious minorities and imprisoned opponents.