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Yemen forces prepare to move on main port, agencies say civilians at risk

DUBAI (Reuters) - Yemeni government forces and their Arab allies are massing north and south of the Houthi-held Red Sea port of Hodeidah despite United Nations and aid groups warnings that a military operation there would put millions of civilians at risk.

FILE PHOTO: Giant cranes, damaged by Saudi-led air strikes, are seen at a container terminal at the Red Sea port of Hodeidah, Yemen November 16, 2016. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah/File Photo

Hodeidah port and province is controlled by the Iran-aligned Houthis and has been the entry point for 70 percent of Yemen’s food supplies as well as humanitarian aid.

The country has been torn by more than two years of civil war that pits the armed Houthi group against the government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, which is backed by a Saudi-led Arab alliance. More than 10,000 people have been killed in the conflict and hunger is widespread.

Local officials said that Hadi’s government, building on recent gains that included capturing the coffee export hub of al-Mokha in February, has amassed two recently-trained brigades -- one in Midi about 230 km (140 miles) north of Hodeidah near the border with Saudi Arabia, and another outside al-Khoukha region, some 130 km (80 miles) south of the city.

Government forces will have to cross large areas of Houthi-held territory from both sides as the movement still controls the most populated areas in Western Yemen, including the capital Sanaa, and the regions surrounding the port city.

Mohsen Khasrof, a senior military official in President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s Aden-based government, said it was only a matter of time for an attack on Hodeidah to start after the United Nations rejected coalition demands that it take steps to ensure that no weapons reach the Houthis through it.

“The political decision of liberating Hodeidah has been taken and military preparations have been completed, only the timing remains to be decided,” he told Reuters by telephone.

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The Houthis have also preparing their defenses.

“Tens of thousands of our fighters from the tribes have answered the call of (the Houthi leader) Abdel-Malek al-Houthi,” deputy spokesman of forces fighting alongside the Houthis, Aziz Rached, told Yemeni news agency Khabar on Tuesday.

Food deliveries have been cut by more than half with nearly 3.3 million people - including 2.1 million children - acutely malnourished, the United Nations says.

The coalition of Gulf Arab countries might still be waiting for a go-ahead from its Western allies the launch the Hodeidah offensive, Yemeni government sources said.

It was unclear whether U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration would approve such a move. His predecessor, Barack Obama had been wary of any operations involving the port and last year rejected a proposal to assist its Gulf allies in a push to take control of it.

The Saudi-led coalition has accused the Houthis of using the port to smuggle weapons and ammunition and has been calling on U.N. to post monitors at the port which had been damaged by coalition air strikes. Houthi movement denied the claims.

The United Nations check ships heading to Hodeidah in Djibouti while passing through the Bab al-Mandab Strait, but Hadi’s government says the system was flawed.

The United Nations says coalition air strikes have hampered humanitarian operations to import food and fuel supplies. Five cranes at the port have been destroyed, forcing dozens of ships to wait offshore their turn to dock.

Food deliveries have been cut by more than half with nearly 3.3 million people - including 2.1 million children - acutely malnourished, the United Nations says.

The International Rescue Committee has said any attack targeting the port would disrupt port facilities and “have a catastrophic impact on the people of Yemen.”

Reporting by Yemen Staff, Writing By Aziz El Yaakoubi, Editing by Sami Aboudi and Angus MacSwan