DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — A coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates began an assault early Wednesday on the Yemeni city of Hodeida, seeking to oust Iranian-backed Houthi rebels who control the strategic port, the Yemeni government said.
Several days of intensive diplomacy failed to stave off the attack on Hodeida, a city of 600,000 people and the gateway for most humanitarian aid to country. U.N. officials and others said they feared an assault on the city would worsen what is already the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.
More than 75 percent of Yemen’s population is dependent on food aid, and millions are on the brink of starvation.
Yemen’s civil war began in 2015 with a breakdown of political talks in the wake of Arab Spring protests that toppled the country’s longtime president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Long-standing political divisions over power sharing gave way to military conflict and a variety of short-term alliances.
The Houthi rebels ousted the Yemeni government three years ago and have controlled Hodeida for much of that time. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have led a coalition that is fighting the rebels, whom they consider to be a proxy for their regional nemesis, Iran.
The Arab-led coalition says the rebels have been smuggling arms through Hodeida, including missiles that the Houthis have used to attack Saudi Arabia. A U.N. team of monitors said in a recent report on Yemen that their findings did not support those allegations and instead concluded that land borders were more likely being used for weapons smuggling. The United Nations has sanctioned any arms sales to Yemen.
Prince Khaled bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, said in a tweet that the assault on Hodeida was part of the coalition’s “unwavering commitment to support the people of Yemen against the tyranny imposed by Iranian-backed militias that are spreading chaos and destruction in Yemen.”
The United States has backed the Arab states in the war, but the United Arab Emirates has faced strong pushback from U.S. officials who see an assault on a densely populated city as a potential disaster, in both military and humanitarian terms.
The attack began while Washington’s attention was still focused on the summit between President Donald Trump and North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un.
In a statement Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he had spoken to Emirati leaders “and made clear our desire to address their security concerns while preserving the free flow of humanitarian aid and lifesaving commercial imports.”
He said the United States expected “all parties” to work with the U.N. special envoy for Yemen and to “support a political process to resolve this conflict.”
The United Nations and the International Committee for the Red Cross withdrew their staff members from Hodeida this week, fearing an attack was imminent.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.