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The Hudaida port is a vital lifeline that is crucial for the flow of food supplies into a country that is on the brink of starvation, as it serves the entry point for 70 percent of the country's imports.

Prince Khalid said that the "operations to liberate the city of Hodeidah are in line with the support delivered by the Saudi-led Arab coalition to the Yemeni people, and a way to support their freedom against the militia supported by Iran bent on sowing chaos and destruction in the country". Military sources said the deaths were caused by mines and snipers. The Saudi-led coalition has been criticised for its air strikes killing civilians.

With logistical support from the USA, the Saudi-led coalition has been carrying out attacks inside Yemen since March 2015, killing at least 10,000 people, in an attempt to reinstate the internationally recognised government of President Abu-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

Nine pro-government troops have been killed in Hodeida, Yemen's rebels suffer 30 fatalities in the clashes.

The government of Yemen in exile "has exhausted all peaceful and political ways to withdraw the Houthi militia from the port of Hodeida", he said in a statement.

The United Nations and other aid groups had pulled their worldwide staff from Hodeida ahead of the rumored assault.

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Lise Grande, the United Nations humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, said the organisaiton would continue to deliver aid supplies.

"Cutting off imports through Hodeida for any length of time will put Yemen's population at extreme, unjustifiable risk", Lise Grande, UN humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, said.

According to the governor of Hodeidah, civilians in Hodeidah are eager for the Houthi rebels to leave the city.

"There is an atmosphere of danger and intense fear in these areas where the coalition are clearing out enemy combatants, especially the areas of al-Shajayra and Nakhayla", Bassim al-Jenani, a Yemeni journalist from Hodeidah now based in Egypt, told MEE on Wednesday.

Emirati minister of state for foreign affairs Anwar Gargash earlier told French newspaper Le Figaro the deadline for a withdrawal from Hodeidah by the Houthis expired on Wednesday morning.

Ahead of the offensive, the UAE sought to project unity with the Yemeni government after months of strained relations - most recently over its military activities on the Yemeni island of Socotra. The next day, Hadi was flown to the UAE to meet with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed (MBZ). In a report in January, the panel cited the fact that ships coming into the port face random inspections, require United Nations approval and that no weapons have been seized since March 2017.

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Hadi, who lives in exile in Riyadh, was also seeking to fix relations with Abu Dhabi, which has sidelined him over the past year by backing rival forces. Capturing Hodeidah, the Houthis' only port, would give the coalition the upper hand in the three-year war.

The government and the coalition accuse Iran of backing the Houthis in a bid to destabilize its regional nemesis Saudi Arabia.

Security sources there said the rebel snipers have been stationing on top of tall buildings as residents stayed indoors. "UNICEF has pre-prepositioned supplies in Hodeida: over 20,000 basic hygiene kits". 40,000 additional kits are in the pipeline.

"We are in constant contact with all the parties involved to negotiate arrangements for Hodeida that would address political, humanitarian, security concerns of all concerned parties", said Martin Griffiths in a statement.

Meanwhile, the coalition cobbled together a force of southern separatist groups, Islamist fighters with links to al-Qaida and units led by Tarek Saleh, the nephew of the late former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

"The situation is dire and we don't know how it will end", said Khadija, a teacher in Hodeidah.

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The Houthi-run Al Masirah satellite news channel later acknowledged the offensive, claiming rebel forces hit a Saudi coalition ship near Hudaida with two land-to-sea missiles.


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