This image grab taken from an AFPTV video shows Yemeni pro-government forces firing a heavy machinegun at the south of Hodeida airport, in Yemen's Hodeida province on June 15, 2018 (Photo: AFP)
Yemeni forces seized Hodeida airport on Wednesday in a major step towards retaking the rebel-held port city after a week of fighting that has left nearly 350 people dead.
Fresh clashes later erupted between UAE-backed government forces and the Iran-allied rebels on a road linking the airport to Hodeida port on the Red Sea coast, a Yemeni army source said.
The city, a crucial entrypoint for imports and humanitarian aid, is the target of a massive operation launched last week by a Saudi-led coalition fighting on the side of the government.
Pro-government forces announced the capture of Hodeida airport in the morning, a day after breaking through the perimeter fence.
"The airport was completely cleared, Thank God, and is under control," the coalition commander for the Red Sea coast, Abdul Salaam al-Shehi, said in a video distributed by the United Arab Emirates' official WAM news agency.
UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash tweeted that the "liberation of Hodeida is the beginning to ending the war.
"The choice in Yemen is between the state and militia, between order and violence, between peace and war," he wrote, referring to Huthi militiamen.
At least 156 Huthis and 28 soldiers were killed in the fight for the airport, according to Hodeida hospital sources.
That raised the death toll in the week-old battle for the city to 348. No civilian casualties have yet been confirmed.
On June 13, Yemen's army and its allies launched their offensive to clear Hodeida of rebel fighters who have held it since 2014, raising UN concerns for vital aid shipments and food imports through the city's docks.
The airport is disused but housed a major rebel base just inland from the coastal road into the city from the south.
It lies eight kilometres (five miles) from the city's port, through which three-quarters of Yemen's imports pass, providing a lifeline for some 22 million people dependent on aid.
UN envoy Martin Griffiths held four days of talks in the rebel-held capital Sanaa in a bid to avert an all-out battle for the city but flew out on Tuesday without announcing any breakthrough.
The United Arab Emirates and other members of a Saudi-led coalition that intervened in support of the government in 2015 have accused regional arch foe Iran of using Hodeida as conduit for arms smuggling to the rebels. Tehran has denied the allegation.
Water supply disrupted
The United Nations has warned any attack on Hodeida port could cripple shipments of desperately needed aid to the 8.4 million Yemenis facing imminent starvation.
The Norwegian Refugee Council said the fighting had already disrupted water supplies, putting people at high risk of contamination.
"As of 19 June, the water supply has been disrupted in several areas and people are reportedly relying on water from mosque wells," it said in a statement.
"Access to adequate and safe water is now a major concern, particularly in light of the ongoing cholera emergency."
Hodeida's residents are now bracing for what they fear will be devastating street fighting, as tanks and buses carrying uniformed troops roll through the empty streets of the once-bustling city.
Some 5,200 families fled their homes this month as pro-government forces advanced up the Red Sea coast, according to the UN.
The offensive, dubbed Operation Golden Victory, is now the most intense battlefront in the already-brutal Yemen war.
Saudi Arabia, the UAE and their allies intervened in 2015, after President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi fled into exile as the rebels overran much of the country.
The conflict has since killed nearly 10,000 people, most of them civilians. Millions have been displaced.
More than 2,200 others have died from cholera and millions are on the verge of famine in what the United Nations has said is the world's gravest humanitarian crisis.
The coalition has helped pro-government forces regain control of the south and much of the Red Sea coast but the rebels still control Sanaa and most of the north.
Multiple rounds of UN-brokered peace talks have all failed to achieve any breakthrough.
The Yemeni government and its allies have insisted that the Huthis must fully withdraw from Hodeida and turn over the port to UN supervision.
The rebels have so far agreed only to share control of the port with the United Nations.