Yemeni Forces, Backed by Saudi-Led Coalition, Launch Assault on Country's Main Port

Sudanese forces fighting alongside the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen gather near the outskirts of the port city of Hodeidah, Yemen, on Wednesday.

Sudanese forces fighting alongside the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen gather near the outskirts of the port city of Hodeidah, Yemen, on Wednesday.


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European Pressphoto Agency

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Yemeni forces backed by a Saudi-led military coalition launched an assault on Yemen’s most important port early Wednesday, despite efforts by the United Nations to broker a deal to avert a battle it said could trigger a massive humanitarian crisis.

Its forces have “started a military operation to liberate the city of Hodeidah,” Yemen’s government media office said in a statement.

The ground attack on Hodeidah and its surrounding areas was being supported by intensifying strikes from the air and sea by coalition forces, according to one person there and local press reports.

A spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition couldn’t be immediately reached for comment.

Mohammed al Jabir, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Yemen, said on Twitter that “Hodeida will be liberated, and the Yemeni people will gain back a major artery of life. An essential lifeline that was previously plagued by the Iranian backed Houthi militia.”

The battle for Hodeidah could mark a turning point in the three-year-old conflict, which has transformed into a proxy war pitting Iran-backed Houthi fighters against the American-backed Saudi coalition.

The U.N. and aid groups warned that a prolonged fight could cripple Yemen’s biggest gateway for humanitarian aid and derail what some see as the most promising international effort yet to broker a peace deal.

The port receives three-quarters of the country’s humanitarian aid and commercial supplies, and even a short disruption in the flow of goods could push millions of people into famine. One U.N. official warned that a protracted battle could claim the lives of up to 250,000 people.

The Trump administration gave the United Arab Emirates—which is leading the Hodeidah campaign—qualified support. One official called it a “blinking yellow light” to proceed with the assault, so long as the coalition did all it could to minimize the civilian death toll, ensure that humanitarian aid continues to flow quickly and prevent the U.N. envoy’s diplomatic push from being derailed.

The battle for Hodeidah represents a gamble for the Saudi-led coalition and the Trump administration, which is providing its Gulf allies with intelligence to help them fine-tune their list of airstrike targets for the military campaign.

The U.S., Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. are all betting that they can quickly rout the Houthi fighters from the port and deliver a strategic blow that strengthens their hands in future peace talks. But the U.N. has warned that the assault could deliver a fatal blow to promising new efforts to secure a political deal to end the fighting.

A botched military operation could also undermine support for the Saudi-led forces back in Washington, where a growing group of lawmakers oppose American support for the fight in Yemen.

The U.A.E., Saudi Arabia’s most important ally in the coalition fighting in Yemen, had given the U.N. until Tuesday night to craft a deal to avert its campaign to push the Houthi fighters out of the port. It has a significant military presence near the Red Sea port and is supporting Yemeni allies in their push to seize it. Saudi Arabia has accused Iran of using Hodeidah to smuggle missiles to the Houthis, a charge Tehran rejects.

Martin Griffiths, the U.N. special envoy for Yemen, was desperately trying to broker a last-minute agreement for the U.N. to manage the port, according to people familiar with the talks. But there was widespread skepticism that Mr. Griffiths could hammer out an agreement. The U.N. didn’t immediately comment on why a deal couldn’t be reached.

The war in Yemen is gaining renewed attention in Washington, where the Trump administration sees it as a chance to push back on Iran’s influence across the Middle East. But the U.S. has restricted its support for the war because of concerns about the high number of civilian casualties and the lack of a political deal to bring the fighting to an end.

The U.S. sells precision-guided missiles that Saudi and U.A.E. pilots use to carry out airstrikes, shares limited intelligence with both countries, and carries out midair refueling missions for the coalition’s warplanes. The U.S. also provided the Saudi-led coalition with intelligence to develop a countrywide “no strike” list that includes hospitals, U.N. offices and mosques.

American military officials said Tuesday the U.S. military is now helping its Gulf allies develop a list of targets in Hodeidah meant to be off limits for airstrikes, another sign of Washington’s deepening role in the military operation.

“The intent is to minimize the number of civilian casualties and the harm to critical infrastructure,” said one U.S. military official.

—Saleh al-Batati in Socotra, Yemen, and Mohammed al-Kibsi in San’a, Yemen, contributed to this article.

Write to Dion Nissenbaum at dion.nissenbaum@wsj.com

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