AL HUDAYDAH, Yemen — The battle for Al Hudaydah, the Yemeni port city and lifeline to a nation threatened with famine, intensified on Tuesday as warplanes from a Saudi-led, Western-backed Arab coalition pounded targets citywide in an effort to drive out Iran-allied Houthi rebels.
Fighters exchanged fire over mine-infested ground at the disused international airport south of the city. Houthi tanks fired shells to defend a key coastal road. Rebels dug trenches into approach roads, in anticipation of a fight for the city center.
Even with all that, the port kept operating.
Dock workers hastily unloaded three ships sent by the United Nations World Food Program that contained enough food for six million people for one month, a spokeswoman, Bettina Luescher, told reporters in Geneva. The sheer amount was a reminder of how the fate of Al Hudaydah has become tied to the fate of millions of vulnerable Yemenis.
The stream of trucks that trundles from the Red Sea port account for about 70 percent of imports in a country where two-thirds of the 29 million people rely on international aid. Aid groups warn that any interruption to that movement would cut supplies to eight million people on the edge of starvation, and cause a sharp rise in food prices for other Yemenis, potentially tipping them into danger.
“We need that port to stay open at any price,” said Elias Diab, a United Nations official in the city reached by phone. “Closing that port means that you’re cutting the last artery to Yemen.”
The United Arab Emirates, which is commanding the assault on Al Hudaydah, insists that it can achieve a rapid, clean victory that will even improve aid supplies to Yemen. But as the battle swelled on Tuesday, some aid workers accused the coalition of engaging in cynical manipulations.
In a sharply worded statement, the International Rescue Committee denounced coalition plans to protect Al Hudaydah residents during the offensive as a “publicity stunt” intended to divert international attention.
“The biggest contribution the Saudi-led coalition could make to the humanitarian situation and protection of civilians is to immediately halt the offensive and engage in U.N.-led peace talks,” said Amanda Catanzano, senior director of policy and advocacy at the International Rescue Committee, in the statement.
Yemen’s humanitarian catastrophe can be found even at the port gates.
According to the United Nations, the impoverished governorate of Al Hudaydah has some of the worst rates of malnutrition and disease in Yemen. One-third of the country’s 400,000 severely malnourished children live in Al Hudaydah Province, Mr. Diab said.
During last year’s cholera epidemic, in which one million Yemenis were infected, Al Hudaydah was among the five most-badly-hit areas. Although cholera infections have fallen this year, many cases persist in the slums of Al Hudaydah, where internally displaced people live in rough shelters with poor sanitation.
As the battle has raged in recent days, it has inflicted further damage on the city’s water and sewage network, elevating the risk of waterborne diseases.
Aid organizations worry that as the city plunges deeper into chaos, they will be unable to access warehouses filled with emergency supplies of food and medicine that keep the city’s most vulnerable residents alive. By the most pessimistic estimate, 250,00 lives are at risk.
But for now, the most immediate danger to civilians in Al Hudaydah comes from the fighting.
On Sunday night an explosion hit a motorcycle carrying Abdulbari Yahyah Farea and his four children as they fled the fighting near their home beside the airport. Mr. Farea and his sons, ages 3 and 8, died instantly. His two daughters survived.
The eldest, Rawan, 15, dragged her badly injured sister, Hanan, 10, to relative safety. She spoke by phone with United Nations aid officials who made frantic calls to Houthi contacts in the Yemeni capital, Sana, and to the Saudi operations command in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, in an effort to get an ambulance into the area.
Mr. Diab, the United Nations officials, offered first aid advice to Rawan over the phone, he said, as Hanan, bleeding profusely, passed in and out of consciousness. “She said her sister was in a pool of blood,” Mr. Diab said.
Rawan’s phone battery died. The fighting continued through the night. By the time the two girls reached a hospital, 12 hours after the explosion and thanks to a small window of peace negotiated by international officials, Hanan was dead.
Relatives said that Rawan, who suffered shrapnel wounds to her face and limbs that are not life-threatening, was moved from a public hospital to her grandfather’s house on Tuesday.
A United Nations effort over the weekend to broker a cease-fire appeared to fizzle on Tuesday when Martin Griffiths, the special envoy to Yemen, flew out of Sana without comment. Houthi leaders said they had rejected proposals to turn over Al Hudaydah to an international committee under United Nations supervision.
By late Tuesday the coalition force, which is led by Emirati officers but made up mostly of Yemeni fighters, had captured a large part of the airport complex, residents and commanders said. But fighting continued in corners of the complex.
State media outlets in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates accused the Houthis of shelling civilian districts. Houthi officials accused the coalition of bombing a bus carrying civilians, killing six people, including four women, on the outskirts of Al Hudaydah.
Emirati officials have indicated that they intend to sweep around the edge of Al Hudaydah, from the airport in the south to the port in the north, to avoid a bloody and protracted fight on its streets. But as the fight escalated on Tuesday, Houthi fighters tore up roads to dig trenches and other defensive positions across the city, raising fears among aid workers that the rebels are preparing to mount a long and bloody defense of the city.
“Every day, by the hour, the configuration of the city is changing,” said Mr. Diab. “It’s a very complex situation.”
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