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article imageWhat next for Yemen's Hodeida?

By Natacha Yazbeck (AFP)     Nov 14, 2018 in World

How did Hodeida become the main frontline in Yemen's devastating war? Who is winning, and what's next for the crucial port city?

After nearly four years of conflict between Yemen's Huthi insurgents and a pro-government military alliance led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the fight is now closing in on the rebel-held Red Sea city.

The battle for Hodeida has sparked UN warnings of a humanitarian catastrophe -- and unprecedented diplomatic pressure to end the war.

- What's happening in Hodeida? -

Hodeida is the sole remaining rebel enclave on Yemen's Red Sea coastline and a valuable geopolitical prize.

The Hodeida port, the entry point for some 80 percent of food imports and aid into Yemen, has been under blockade by the Saudi-led coalition since last year.

The alliance has waged an intermittent five-month campaign to seize the port.

It accuses Riyadh's regional rival Tehran of using it to smuggle arms to the Huthis, which Iran denies.

"Most of the momentum we have seen on the frontlines in the last year has been along the Red Sea coast, leading northward to Hodeida -- the biggest strategic prize," said Elizabeth Dickinson, senior analyst with the International Crisis Group.

"But the same reason that Hodeida is so strategic militarily is why humanitarian workers are so alarmed by the prospect of a military campaign," she added.

"Any shock to the port's operations and the outflow of goods could devastate not only Hodeida itself, but Yemen's entire north, which relies on it as a gateway for nearly all food and other goods."

- Who's winning? -

The Huthi rebels and Saudi-led coalition bring very different strengths to a complex conflict.

The coalition, which edged a few kilometres into eastern Hodeida city this month, has US-backed, UAE-trained boots on the ground and the strength of Saudi Arabia's air force, also assisted by the United States.

The Huthis however have a history of guerrilla warfare, an advantage in a fight for control over one of Yemen's most densely populated cities.

The battle for Hodeida
The battle for Hodeida
Laurence SAUBADU, AFP

The rebels, who have confirmed the use of landmines in areas under their control, say they are ready to fight to the end.

Coalition troops were ordered this week to halt their advance on Hodeida, according to three field commanders contacted by AFP on Wednesday.

So for now, there is neither victor nor vanquished in Hodeida.

A coalition attack on the docks remains a possibility, which would put at risk 14 million aid-dependant Yemenis already on the verge of mass starvation.

"Fighting is fierce. There have been gains on the coalition side over the last year as they've moved up the coast towards Hodeida, but the Huthis are fighting back," said Kristine Beckerle, Yemen researcher at Human Rights Watch.

"So the winners aren't clear, not yet. The losers: Yemeni civilians."

- What next? -

Kick-starting peace talks is now a key goal for Western powers, who turned their focus to Yemen after the high-profile murder of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a vocal critic of Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The UN is pushing for yet another round of negotiations by the end of the year, a move publicly supported by the UAE.

But that doesn't necessarily rule out a move on the Hodeida port.

"The coalition sees military pressure as key to ensuring the Huthis come to the table and are ready to compromise," said Dickinson.

"They have repeatedly argued that taking Hodeida out of Huthi control would reduce the rebels' income and encourage them to negotiate in good faith."

The US, Britain and France are leading the calls to halt hostilities in Yemen, where the US has for years provided military support to and shared intelligence with Saudi Arabia (which, in turn, has landed on a UN blacklist for the maiming and killing of children in air raids).

Washington has, however, ended its aerial refuelling support for Saudi planes engaged in the Yemen war.

Western powers now "have real leverage", Beckerle said, "but that requires the US, UK and France actually show the coalition they are serious."

"They could do so by finally halting weapons sales and pushing strong language in a new UN resolution," she added.

"For example, by asking for a UN expert panel, which already exists ... to lay out which individuals are responsible for violating the laws of war and obstructing humanitarian aid, and then sanctioning them."

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