(CNN)An operation to recapture the northwestern Yemeni port city of Hodeidah got underway at dawn Wednesday, potentially putting quarter of a million people at risk.
Saudi-led coalition-backed forces launched attacks on the city’s airport and other neighborhoods in the south-eastern part of the city, with air force and navy support, Yemeni National Army General Mohsen Al Khosrof told CNN.
Last week, the UN said that, in a worst-case scenario, as many as 250,000 people could be killed in an offensive against Hodeidah.
The city, which is currently under the control of Iran-backed Houthi rebels, is considered a lifeline for the country’s war-ravaged population. It serves as an entry point for 70% of foreign humanitarian aid into Yemen, according to the UN, and also provides the rebels with critical access to the Red Sea.
“Seven million people are completely reliant every month on food and other assistance from humanitarian organizations so Hodeidah is absolutely central to the preserving of life,” said UN Humanitarian Chief Mark Lowcock at a press briefing Monday.
“If for any period, Hodeidah were not to operate effectively, the consequences in humanitarian terms would be catastrophic.”
The coalition, which includes the UAE, has been in a virtual stalemate with the Houthis since a coalition offensive began in March of 2015. The Houthis control parts of the northern part of the country, while Yemen’s coalition-backed government controls much of the south.
As recently as Monday the world body, which has already dubbed Yemen the world’s worst humanitarian disaster, was trying to negotiate a settlement to stave off the attack.
The UK and other European countries have long opposed the offensive, but the United States, which previously stood against the offensive, appears to have offered tacit agreement. Officials issued a statement Monday that Yemen analyst Adam Baron described as a “yellow light” for the Yemen offensive.
“I have spoken with Emirati leaders and made clear our desire to address their security concerns while preserving the free flow of humanitarian aid and life-saving commercial imports,” said US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a press statement Monday.
Will the Houthis withdraw?
The offensive also risks plunging the country into further violence as the coalition tries to wrest control of the strategic city from the rebels. A coalition takeover would tip the conflict in favor of Saudi Arabia and its allies.
“This offensive represents a huge escalation in the conflict … a lot of it depends on how Hodeidah falls. If the Houthis dig in, this could be a bloody street battle comparable to Aleppo,” Baron, the analyst, said.
But “there is the opportunity for a Houthi withdrawal and for the coalition to force a Houthi retreat,” Baron adds.
“This is something that could be extremely high-risk and could cause a lot of humanitarian disruption … there’s a reason why you’re seeing so much opposition in some quarters.”