The United Arab Emirates has warned Yemen’s Houthi rebels that they face an imminent offensive on Hodeida if they fail to evacuate the port city within 48 hours.
Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash made the comments on Tuesday in an interview with French daily Le Figaro.
“If the Houthis don’t get out of Hodeidah city and the port, the UAE will start a military operation against the rebels in Hodeidah,” Gargash said.
He said that he has set a 48-hour ultimatum for the United Nations to convince the Houthi rebels to quit Yemen’s main port.
“We gave UN special envoy Martin Griffiths 48 hours to convince the Houthis to withdraw,” the top diplomat said.
“We are awaiting his response. These 48 hours expire during the night of Tuesday and Wednesday,” he added.
The UN mobilised on Monday to avert a “fierce, bloody battle” for the rebel-held port, which provides a lifeline for food, medicine and other vital supplies.
Griffiths has been locked in negotiations with the Houthis, the UAE and Saudi Arabia to avoid a military confrontation in Hodeida, according to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
Loyalist Yemeni military sources said the UAE-backed pro-government forces were dispatching reinforcements towards the Red Sea port, which they claim is being used by the rebels to smuggle weapons.
The city is home to 600,000 people and is the entry point for 70 percent of Yemen’s imports, including vital aid supplies for civilians in the conflict-wracked country.
Aid groups operating in Yemen warned earlier of catastrophic consequences of any further escalation of violence around the port city Hodeidah.
According to credible reports, a possible attack of the city looks imminent and could, according to the UN, cost up to 250,000 lives.
The pro-government forces are a mix of local fighters, those loyal to President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, and supporters of the ex-head of state, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was killed in December by his former Houthi allies.
They are backed on the ground by the UAE, while Saudi Arabia has been leading a campaign of air strikes.
Hadi visited the UAE on Tuesday for his first official visit since a crisis in his relations with Abu Dhabi.
The UAE has been expanding its influence in southern Yemen, and also back separatists who wrenched control of the south of the country from Hadi in January.