Arab states attack Yemen port key to feeding 8.4 million starving people

Saudi-backed pro-government Yemeni forces in Hudaydah province

The battle for Hudaida, if the Houthis don't withdraw, also may mark the first major street-to-street urban fighting for the Saudi-led coalition, which can be deadly for both combatants and civilians alike. In August 2015, air strikes disabled four giant mobile cranes, drastically slowing the unloading of food until they were replaced by the USA - which supports the coalition - this January.

A draft for a United Nations peace plan for Yemen exclusively seen by Reuters calls on the Houthi movement to give up its ballistic missiles in return for an end to a bombing campaign from a Saudi-led coalition.

Field commanders said that troops pushed towards Hodeida International Airport after Yemeni pro-government forces received a "green light" from the coalition.

Hadi's government said in a statement reported by Saudi media on Wednesday that all political and peaceful approaches to drive the Houthis out of Hodeidah had been exhausted.

Hodeidah, Yemen's biggest port and the only port controlled by the Houthis, serves as the lifeline for the majority of Yemen's population, which lives in Houthi-ruled territory.

Houthi-run Al Mariah TV said two missiles had struck the barge, but there has so far been no immediate confirmation from the coalition. Houthi forces have fired missiles at ships previously.

"The targeted ship was carrying troops prepared for a landing on the coast of Hudaida", the channel said.

The Saudi-led coalition did not immediately acknowledge the incident.

Forces loyal to Yemen's exiled government and irregular fighters led by Emirati troops had neared Hodeida in recent days.

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Hudaydah, 140km (90 miles) west of the capital Sanaa, was Yemen's fourth-largest city and a major economic hub before rebels took control of it in late 2014. The U.S. has provided the Saudi-led coalition logistical support.

Emirati Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash earlier told French newspaper Le Figaro the deadline for a withdrawal from Hudaida by the Houthis expired early on Wednesday morning.

The United Nations and aids groups have been scrambling to stall the attack, warning that an assault on Hodeidah could spiral out of control, compounding already arguably the worst humanitarian disaster in the world.

The coalition launched a major air campaign that the United Nations says has killed thousands of civilians and destroyed critical infrastructure across rebel-held Yemen.

Aid agencies say the coastal city provides a vital route for food and medicine and that millions of people are at risk of starvation if goods can not pass through it. Effort to kill Trump tariffs blocked Trump stokes confusion with pledge to halt Korean war games Five takeaways from Trump's summit with Kim Jong Un MORE and Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoWith caveats, Republicans praise Trump's summit with Kim Jong Un Pavlich: Pompeo: The man for the job on North Korea Five takeaways from Trump's summit with Kim Jong Un MORE on the eve of the offensive expressing "grave alarm". The Saudi-led coalition has been criticized for its airstrikes killing civilians. Parts of Yemen are also held by Al-Qaeda and ISIS.

"More than two-thirds of the people of Yemen count on the food that is imported through the port of Hudaida", Veldwijk said. A Saudi-led airstrike in 2015 destroyed cranes at Hudaida.

The UN says some 600,000 people live in and around Hodeida, and "as many as 250,000 people may lose everything - even their lives" in the assault. Already, Yemeni security officials said some were fleeing the fighting.

"We hear sounds of explosions".

"We are concerned that pending military operations by the United Arab Emirates and its Yemeni partners will exacerbate the humanitarian crisis by interrupting delivery of humanitarian aid and damaging critical infrastructure", the senators wrote.

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