The UN Security Council has called for the key Yemeni port of Hodeida to be kept open following the launch of an offensive against the strategic harbour by troops in a Saudi-led coalition.
In a statement after an emergency closed-door meeting, the council expressed “deep concerns about the risks to the humanitarian situation”.
The council “urged all sides to uphold their obligations under international humanitarian law”.
Britain’s UN ambassador Karen Pierce, who called the meeting, told reporters before it started that UN special envoy Martin Griffiths has been trying to negotiate the withdrawal of the Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, who control Hodeida.
Mr Griffiths is expected to brief the council on Monday, including on his proposals to restart negotiations to restore peace to Yemen.
Sweden had urged the council to call for an immediate freeze to military action on Hodeida, but the council statement made no such call, reflecting divisions among its 15 members.
A Saudi military spokesman said forces were drawing closer to the port city of Hodeida, while international aid agencies and the UN warned the assault could shut down the vital aid route for some 70% of Yemen’s food, as well as the bulk of humanitarian aid and fuel supplies.
Around two-thirds of Yemen’s population of 27 million relies on aid and 8.4 million are already at risk of starving.
The United Arab Emirates ambassador to UN agencies in Geneva maintained the Saudi-Emirati coalition had no choice but to act.
“Should we leave the Houthis smuggling missiles?” Ambassador Obaid Salem al-Zaabi told a news conference.
“This comes from this seaport. We already gave the United Nations the chance to operate from this seaport, and (the Houthis) refused.”
The ambassador’s comments contradict the conclusions of a UN panel of experts that said it was unlikely the Houthis were using the port for smuggling arms.
In a report in January, the panel cited the fact that ships coming into the port face random inspections, require UN approval and that no weapons have been seized since March 2017.
The UN and Western nations have accused Iran of supplying the Houthis with weapons, from assault rifles to the ballistic missiles they have fired deep into Saudi Arabia, including at the capital, Riyadh.
Over 150 ballistic missiles have been fired into the kingdom by the Houthis, according to Saudi officials.
On Thursday, a senior UAE official said the Trump administration has rejected requests for military assistance in the coalition attack on Hodeida.
The requests were for aerial satellite imagery, other surveillance and reconnaissance, and minesweeping, said the official.
The US has not publicly opposed the assault but has urged the coalition to ensure that humanitarian aid deliveries to the port continue.
The port remained open on Thursday, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council, which cited information from the UN. There were “four vessels filled with food and fuel at berth” and another five vessels anchored nearby, it said.
“People in the governorate have reported heavy airstrikes along coastal areas and roads in districts south of Hodeida,” the council said.
“No direct attacks have been reported within Hodeida city itself, despite the overhead presence of fighter jets.”
Late on Thursday, Saudi Arabia’s UN ambassador said there were two ships, each carrying 5,000 tons of food, ready to dock immediately at the port of Hodeida.
Abdallah Al-Mouallimi said the ships – from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – are part of coalition efforts “toward ensuring abundant humanitarian supplies” to Hodeida during the offensive.
On Thursday, coalition troops took the town of Nakhila in Yemen’s ad-Durayhimi district, some 12 miles south of Hodeida International Airport, according to Yemen’s government-run SABA news agency.
Colonel Turki al-Malki, a Saudi military spokesman, said coalition forces were some three miles from the airfield, in an interview with the Saudi-owned satellite news channel Al Arabiya.
Meanwhile, Colonel Aziz Rashed, the spokesman for an army unit allied with the Houthis, told a news conference in the capital, Sanaa, that the rebels foiled a naval attack by government forces backed by the Saudi-led coalition in waters off Hodeida.
He said the rebels had countered “hostile naval warships” off the coasty of al-Olifika, to the south.
The Saudi-led coalition launched the assault on Hodeida on Wednesday, raising warnings from aid agencies that Yemen’s humanitarian disaster could deepen and that the offensive could set off prolonged street-by-street battles, inflicting heavy casualties.
“Any closure of the port, even for a few days, will have a dramatic impact on the humanitarian operations in the country,” the UN humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, Lise Grande, said.
“There is no substitute for Hodeida. Everything depends on that port,” she said.