Thousands evacuate as battle intensifies near Yemen airport

Thousands of civilians have been evacuating districts surrounding Hodeidah’s airport Saturday as a Saudi-led coalition closes in on the Houthi-held city in Yemen, according to two sources.

CNN is unable to verify independently the exact number of people fleeing Hodeidah, but hundreds of vehicles were seen lining up early Saturday as they headed to the northern part of the city, said local activist Nofel Al Najjar and a local council official who does not want to be named for security reasons.

The densely populated Red Sea port in western Yemen is facing an all-out battle as the Saudi-led coalition works to retake the city from the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen’s bloody civil war.

Control of Hodeidah’s airport in the latest chapter in the bloody conflict.

Clashes have been happening at the airport’s gates as hundreds of coalition forces surround the area, three Houthi security officials said.

The Saudi Center of International Communication posted on its official Twitter account that the “Saudi-led coalition enters Hodeidah airport,” but the Houthis claim the airport remains in their control, according to the three Houthi security officials in the area.

CNN has reached out to the Saudi center for comment.

Quarter of a million civilians potentially at risk

On Saturday, the Norwegian Refugee Council reported that “humanitarian agencies have had to pause almost all operations” in Hodeidah as clashes “approach highly populated residential areas.”

The organization also said that “humanitarian agencies cannot currently access areas south of the city where people are most likely to have been injured, affected and displaced.”

“I am deeply worried about people who fled to Hodeidah city because their homes were under attack in other areas, ” Saleem Al-Shamiri, the council’s office coordinator Hodeidah, said from Yemen’s capital, Sanaa.

“Tens of thousands of people came with nothing and are now left to fend for themselves until we can get to them with food and clean water.”

The operation to recapture Hodeidah got underway at dawn Wednesday, potentially putting a quarter of a million people at risk.

The Saudi-led coalition launched ground attacks on the airport and other neighborhoods in the southeastern part of the city with air and naval support, Gen. Mohsen Al Khosrof of the Yemeni National Army told CNN.

The army and coalition are fighting on behalf of the internationally recognized government, which is trying to squash an insurgency by the Iranian-backed Houthis.

Since March 2015, Saudi Arabia has been leading the coalition of Gulf states against the Houthi rebels in northern Yemen. In November 2017, the coalition tightened its blockade on Yemen, cutting off deliveries of food, medical supplies and other aid.

The blockade has caused a countrywide famine, and the United Nations recently declared the situation there the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Martin Griffiths, UN special envoy for Yemen, arrived Saturday in Sanaa, his office told CNN in an email.

Griffiths is “in contact with all parties to avoid further escalation and spare (Hodeidah) a military confrontation,” the office said.