There was fighting to the south of the key port city and near its airport on Thursday with reports that at least four Emerati soldiers and 22 Houthi rebels had been killed since the Saudi-led coalition attacked the Shia rebel-held city on Wednesday.

A bulldozer clears the way for a column of Yemeni pro-government forces arriving in Al Durayhimi district, about nine kilometres south of Hudaida's airport, Yemen, June 13, 2018.
A bulldozer clears the way for a column of Yemeni pro-government forces arriving in Al Durayhimi district, about nine kilometres south of Hudaida's airport, Yemen, June 13, 2018. ( AFP )

Troops in a Saudi-led coalition captured a town south of the port city of Hudaida on Thursday as fighting and air strikes pounded the area, officials said, on the second day of an offensive to capture the strategic harbour.

Coalition forces took the town of Nakhila in Yemen's Ad Durayhimi district, some 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) south of Hudaida International Airport, according to the government-run SABA news agency.

Fighters continued to move closer to the airport in fighting on Thursday.

The Saudi-led coalition backing Yemen's exiled government launched an assault on Hudaida on Wednesday. The Red Sea port is the main entry for food aid into a country already on the brink of famine.

The biggest offensive of the years-long war in the Arab world's poorest nation has raised warnings from aid agencies that Yemen's humanitarian disaster could deepen.

The attack is aimed at driving out Iran-backed Shia rebels known as Houthis, who have held Hudaida since 2015, and break the civil war's long stalemate. But it could set off a prolonged street-by-street battle that inflicts heavy casualties.

The fear is that a protracted fight could force a shutdown of Hudaida's port at a time when a halt in aid risks tipping millions into starvation. 

Some 70 percent of Yemen's food enters via the port, as well as the bulk of humanitarian aid and fuel supplies. Around two-thirds of the country's population of 27 million relies on aid and 8.4 million are already at risk of starving.

Operation Golden Victory

Early on Wednesday, convoys of vehicles headed toward the rebel-held city as heavy gunfire rang out. The assault, part of an operation dubbed "Golden Victory," began with coalition air strikes and shelling by naval ships, according to Saudi-owned satellite news channels and state media.

Bombardment was heavy, with one aid official reporting 30 strikes in 30 minutes.

The initial battle plan appeared to involve a pincer movement. Some 2,000 troops who crossed the Red Sea from an Emirati naval base in the African nation of Eritrea were awaiting orders to move in from the west after Yemeni government forces seize Hudaida's port, Yemeni security officials said.

Emirati forces with Yemeni government troops moved in from the south near Hudaida's airport, while others sought to cut off Houthi supply lines to the east, the officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity as they weren't authorised to brief journalists.

Yemen's exiled government "has exhausted all peaceful and political means to remove the Houthi militia from the port of Hudaida," it said in a statement. "Liberation of the port of Hudaida is a milestone in our struggle to regain Yemen from the militias."

Four Emirati soldiers were killed in Wednesday's assault, the United Arab Emirates' state-run news agency said, but gave no details of how they died.

The Houthi-run Al Masirah satellite news channel claimed rebel forces hit a Saudi coalition ship near Hudaida with two missiles. The Saudi-led coalition did not immediately acknowledge the incident.

Forces loyal to Yemen's exiled government and fighters led by Emirati troops had neared Hudaida in recent days. The port is some 150 kilometers (90 miles) southwest of Sanaa, Yemen's capital, which has been in Houthi hands since September 2014. The Saudi-led coalition entered the war in March 2015.

Fears of humanitarian crisis deepening

The United Nations and other aid groups already had pulled their international staff from Hudaida ahead of the assault. The UN Security Council was scheduled to meet on Thursday to discuss the offensive.

The port has remained open, however. Several ships arrived in recent days, including oil tankers, and there was no word from the coalition or the UN to stop work, according to a senior port official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to talk to the media.

Aid groups nevertheless warned of disaster.

More than 10,000 people have been killed in Yemen's civil war, which has displaced two million others and helped spawn a cholera epidemic. Saudi-led airstrikes have killed large numbers of civilians and damaged vital infrastructure.

The UN and Western nations say Iran has supplied the Houthis with weapons, from assault rifles to the ballistic missiles they have fired deep into Saudi Arabia, including at the capital, Riyadh.

The coalition has blocked most ports, letting supplies into Hudaida in co-ordination with the UN. The air campaign and fighting have disrupted other supply lines, causing an economic crisis that makes food too expensive for many to afford.

Late Wednesday, the Saudi and Emirati governments announced what they called a "multi-faceted plan" to protect civilians in Hudaida, including establishing routes for food, medical supplies and oil shipments from Saudi Arabia's southern city of Jizan and the UAE's capital, Abu Dhabi.

As the offensive got under way, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Yemen was defiant.

"Hudaida will be liberated, and the Yemeni people will gain back a major artery of life." he tweeted.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies