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Yemenis brace for street fighting as UAE-backed troops enter Hodeida residential areas

AFP | Yemeni pro-government forces gather on the eastern outskirts of Hodeida on Nov. 9, 2018.

Yemeni troops, backed by the United Arab Emirates, pushed into residential areas of Hodeida Monday, sparking fears of street fighting as nearly 150 people were killed in 24 hours of clashes, according to medical and military sources.

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Fighting intensified in the western Yemeni port city of Hodeida over the weekend, with at least 149 people, including civilians, killed in 24 hours of clashes between government loyalists and rebels, medics and military sources said Monday.

A source in Yemen's pro-government military coalition, which is backed by Saudi Arabia and its regional allies, said the Houthi rebels had pushed back a large-scale offensive aimed at moving up the Red Sea coastline towards the Hodeida port, a lifeline to 14 million Yemenis who face mass starvation.

The fighting came as international pressure mounted on Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies to end the conflict in the impoverished Arab nation.

British Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt is visiting Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Monday to press for an end to the war and to urge Riyadh to cooperate in the investigation into the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

His visit comes amid an international diplomatic crisis over Khashoggi’s October 2 murder in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

The diplomatic pressure came as Emirati-backed Yemeni troops have made their way into rebel-held Hodeida after 11 days of clashes, reaching residential neighbourhoods in the east on Sunday and sparking fears of street fights that would further endanger civilians trapped in the city.

Residents and government military sources have reported rebel snipers stationed on rooftops in civilian streets in eastern Hodeida, a few miles from the port on the western edge of the city.

The Hodeida offensive has sparked international outcry unprecedented in nearly four years of conflict between Yemen's Houthis, who are linked to Iran, and the Saudi-backed government.

Aid groups fear for the safety of nearly 600,000 people living in Hodeida -- and for millions of others dependent on its port for what little food and humanitarian aid trickle into impoverished, blockaded Yemen.

Charred bodies arrive at hospital

A military official in Hodeida on Monday confirmed seven civilians had died, without giving further details.

Sources at the Al-Alfi military hospital, seized by the rebels during their 2014 takeover, said charred body parts had been delivered there overnight.

Military sources confirmed that the Saudi-led alliance had targeted the rebels with multiple air strikes.

The rebels have begun to transfer their wounded to Sanaa, the capital, which the Houthis seized during a 2014 takeover that included a string of ports on the Yemeni coastline.

Saudi Arabia and its allies intervened in the Yemeni government's fight against the Houthis in 2015, triggering what the UN now calls the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

The Saudi-led alliance drove the rebels from the Yemeni coast, but have failed to retake Hodeida despite multiple attempts.

Nearly 600 people have been killed since clashes erupted in Hodeida on November 1, ending a temporary suspension in a government offensive to take the city that began in June.

International pressure rises

Meanwhile the US and European countries have been reconsidering their support for the Saudi-led military operation in Yemen following intense international focus on the oil-rich Gulf kingdom since Khashoggi’s killing.

Multiple countries, including Germany and Norway, halted arms sales to Saudi Arabia after Khashoggi's murder.

The UN’s Yemen envoy, Martin Griffiths, is pushing for peace talks between the Houthis and Saudi-backed government by the end of the year. Multiple UN-brokered negotiations have failed to find a solution to the Yemen conflict.

The US, which for years provided military training and aerial refueling for the Saudi-led coalition, on Saturday announced it would end its inflight refueling support for the alliance.

British Foreign Minister Hunt is meeting top Saudi officials during his visit to the kingdom on Monday. Hunt’s visit comes after British undersecretary for foreign affairs Simon McDonald held talks with Saudi Arabia's crown prince and foreign minister in Riyadh.

The coalition has been blacklisted by the UN for the killing and maiming of children, particularly in air raids on rebel-held territory.

Hodeida port has been under blockade by the coalition for a year.

The alliance accuses Iran of smuggling arms to the Houthis through the port, which Tehran denies.

Aid groups have urged the rebels and loyalist forces to allow civilians to escape from Hodeida, where many cannot afford even a bus fare.

The World Health Organization estimates nearly 10,000 people have been killed in the Yemen war since 2015. Rights groups believe the toll may be five times as high.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

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