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Hodeidah offensive prompts France to downgrade Yemen conference

PARIS (Reuters) - France is downgrading an international humanitarian conference on Yemen after Saudi-led coalition forces stormed the main port Hodeidah, diplomatic and aid sources said on Thursday.

The gathering of countries and international organizations, co-chaired by Saudi Arabia, had been due to take place at ministerial level in Paris on June 27 with the objective of addressing the “urgent humanitarian situation” in Yemen.

The conference was announced in May by President Emmanuel Macron with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman alongside him, and Macron had been due to deliver a speech and had wanted concrete results from the meeting.

A French diplomatic source said the meeting would now be at “international expert level” to prepare a future conference.

“The offensive on Hodeidah made this conference even more untenable, especially if you don’t have all the players on board,” said a second French diplomat.

The Western-backed Arab alliance that intervened in Yemen’s war in 2015 captured Hodeidah airport earlier this week but now face fierce urban combat with Iran-aligned Houthi forces dug into Hodeidah’s residential districts.

The United Nations fears heavy fighting will worsen what is already the world’s most urgent humanitarian crisis, with 22 million Yemenis dependent on aid and an estimated 8.4 million believed to be on the verge of starvation. For most Yemenis, the port of Hodeidah is the main lifeline.

France, along with the United States and Britain, backs the coalition in the conflict and provides weapons to both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. It said last week that it was weighing the possibility of carrying out de-mining operations at Hodeidah once military operations were over.

Le Figaro newspaper reported French special forces were operating alongside the coalition in Yemen, though the French defense ministry denied having any forces on the ground.

Reporting by John Irish; Editing by Mark Heinrich