ABU DHABI (Reuters) - A campaign to drive the Houthi movement from Yemen’s main port of Hodeidah, which resumed this month after peace talks failed, will not be halted again until the city is captured, a Yemeni commander leading southern separatist forces said on Thursday.
Aidaroos al-Zubaidi is the leader of the separatists who aim to restore the independent state of Southern Yemen, which united with northern Yemen in 1990.
His Southern Resistance Movement has 20,000 men positioned in Hodeidah, providing the bulk of a ground force led by the United Arab Emirates that is trying to capture Yemen’s main port city from the Houthis who control the capital Sanaa.
UAE-led troops launched a major offensive in Hodeidah in June this year but suspended it after several weeks to allow the possibility for U.N.-brokered peace talks. The campaign resumed this month after the Houthis failed to attend the talks.
On Wednesday, Zubaidi’s Giants Brigade said it was reinforcing its lines in Hodeidah, sending more men, armored vehicles and heavy artillery. The escalation has raised international alarm because of the threat to civilians, both from fighting in the city and from potential disruption to supply lines that keep more than 8 million Yemenis from famine.
“The civilian lives are very precious and all the coalition’s operations in the air and sea are taking into consideration the civilian casualties, but the military operation has begun and there will be no going back,” Zubaidi told Reuters in an interview in the UAE capital Abu Dhabi.
“In all the wars across the world, there is always humanitarian suffering. But we are looking beyond the liberation of Hodeidah which will be in the interests of the city’s population,” said Zubaidi. “The battle of Hodeidah is continuing and the war is not over.”
Zubaidi’s separatists have occasionally fought alongside forces of President Abd Rabbu Mansour al-Hadi, who was driven out of the capital in 2014 and now heads a government based in the southern port of Yemen.
They later fell out, but both remain important components of an anti-Houthi alliance backed by Arab forces led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Hadi lives in exile in Riyadh and has a close relationship to Saudi Arabia, while Zubaidi’s separatist Southern Transitional Council maintains its luxurious headquarters in Abu Dhabi, the Emirati capital, and is backed by the UAE.
The separatist force, built with UAE support, has more than 50,000 fighters. They helped drive the Houthis from Aden and al Qaeda militants from the southern port of Mukalla in 2015, often acting in a shaky alliance with Hadi’s troops.
Intervention by the Arab states has so far failed to break the Iran-aligned Houthis, who still control most of Yemen’s populated areas and strategic cities. The anti-Houthi coalition says it has seized the road linking Hodeidah to Sanaa to isolate the two cities. The Houthis deny that the road has been taken.
Zubaidi characterized the fighting around Hodeidah as “hit-and-run style with the enemy, and the resistance forces with all their factions have fought heroically.”
He dismissed suggestions that the aim of resuming the offensive was to put pressure on the U.N. envoy over the peace talks. He said he supported the talks but they should include the southern separatists because they control the ground.
“Talking to people who do not control the ground is like getting locked in a vicious circle,” he said, adding that talks should lead to a referendum on self-determination for the south.
Reporting By Aziz El Yaakoubi; Editing by Michael Georgy and Peter Graff