UN Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths flew into Yemen on Saturday and is expected to offer Houthis for the UN to take control of Hodeidah (AFP)
Forces from a Gulf-backed alliance reportedly entered the airport in the Yemeni port city of Hodeidah on Saturday, in the biggest battle of the coalition's war against the rebel Houthi movement.
Meanwhile, the United Nations envoy for Yemen arrived in the rebel-held capital Sanaa on Saturday for talks on the key port city.
The rebels have controlled the Hodeidah region, with its population of some 600,000 people, since 2014.
Earlier this year, the Saudi-led coalition imposed a near-total blockade on the city's port, alleging that it was being used as a conduit for arms smuggling to the rebels by Saudi Arabia's regional arch-rival Iran.
The internationally recognised Yemeni government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi and it allies, including the United Arab Emirates, launched their offensive on Wednesday. At least 139 combatants have already been killed, according to medical and military sources.
"Army forces backed by the resistance and the Arab alliance freed Hodeidah international airport from the grip of the Houthi militia," the media office of Hadis military said on Twitter on Saturday, using another spelling for the city's name.
But a Yemeni military source and residents told Reuters that ground troops – which include Emirati forces, Sudanese and Yemenis drawn from various factions – had surrounded Hodeidah's main airport compound but have not seized it.
"We need some time to make sure there are no gunmen, mines or explosive in the building," the military source said. The military's media office said technical teams were demining the surrounding area.
Fighting led to the closure of Hodeidah's northern entrance, which leads to Sanaa, residents said.
That has blocked a key exit out of the city and made it more difficult to transport goods from the port, the country's largest, to mountainous regions.
Aly Omar said he and his family spent three days trapped in the Manzar neighbourhood abutting the airport as fighting raged all around them.
"We didn't have any food, or drink or anything, not even water," Omar said, standing in a hospital on Friday night beside his son, who was wounded by an air strike.
"I treated him on a bus after he was injured in an air strike, which is unacceptable. I call on the United Nations and the Red Cross to open a way for us to get out of the situation we're in. Our kids, women and elderly are stuck."
UN envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths is expected to propose to Houthi rebel leaders that they cede control of the Red Sea port to a UN-supervised committee to avoid further fighting with advancing coalition troops.
The United Nations, which failed to find a diplomatic solution to head off the assault, fears the fighting will cut off the only lifeline for millions of Yemenis facing starvation, as some 70 percent of Yemeni imports pass through the city's docks.
"The UN envoy has accomplished nothing so far. He provides a cover for the continued aggression," Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdul-Salam said on Houthi-run media ahead of Griffith's visit.
The offensive in Hodeidah could trigger a famine imperilling millions of lives, the UN has warned. Around 22 million people in Yemen depend on the humanitarian aid efforts, with 8.4 million at risk of starvation.
"Humanitarian agencies cannot currently access areas south of the city where people are most likely to have been injured, affected and displaced, leaving us without a clear picture of needs," said the Norwegian Refugee Council's office in Yemen.
Humanitarian organisations have been forced to pause almost all operations in Hodeidah, it said.
Developments on the fourth day of fighting came as French newspaper Le Figaro reported on Saturday that French special forces were present on the ground in Yemen with forces from the United Arab Emirates.
Citing two military sources to corroborate its claims, the newspaper gave no further information about their activities. The French defence ministry was not immediately available for comment, but its usual policy is not to comment on special forces' operations.
The defence ministry said on Friday that France was studying the possibility of carrying out a minesweeping operation to provide access to Hodeidah's port once the coalition had wrapped up its military operations.
The ministry stressed that France at this stage had no military operations in the Hodeidah region and was not part of the Saudi-led coalition.
France, along with the United States and Britain, backs the Arab coalition in the Yemen conflict and provides weapons to both Saudi Arabia and the UAE.