SANAA, Yemen -- Heavy fighting in Yemen between pro-government forces and Shiite rebels has killed more than 600 people on both sides in recent days, security officials said Monday.
Government forces, backed by a Saudi-led coalition, have been advancing along the western coast in recent weeks as they battle the Iran-allied rebels, known as Houthis. The fighting has escalated as government forces close in on the Red Sea port of Hodeida, a vital lifeline through which most of Yemen's food and medicine enters.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media. Witnesses, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said the fighting has forced dozens of families to leave their homes.
Fighting the Houthis is a mix of Yemeni tribal forces and Islamist groups backed by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. That coalition has long sought to seize Hodeida to deny the Houthis a vital piece of territory while giving the Arab nations an upper hand in peace negotiations.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Monday that U.N. envoy Martin Griffiths was engaged in "intense negotiations," shuttling between Yemen's capital, Sanaa, which is controlled by the Houthis, and Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to avoid a "military confrontation in Hodeida."
After briefing the Security Council later Monday, U.N. humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock told reporters that it's critical to prevent "a battle" for Hodeida, which is a vital link for supplying millions of Yemenis with necessities.
He said that "90 percent of food, fuel and medicines in Yemen are imported" -- and 70 percent go through Hodeida, including desperately needed humanitarian aid for over 7 million people.
The Arab-led coalition and the U.S. military say the rebels have been smuggling arms through Hodeida, including missiles that the Houthis have used to attack Saudi Arabia.
The international aid group Oxfam said humanitarian organizations received warnings over the weekend for staff members to evacuate Hodeida by today ahead of an offensive.
Late Monday, the United Nations said it was withdrawing its staff from the port city after member countries were told that an attack by forces led by the United Arab Emirates was imminent, according to two diplomats briefed on the matter.
The U.N. warned Friday that a military attack or siege on Hodeida would affect hundreds of thousands of civilians. Some 600,000 people live in and around the city.
The Security Council was also briefed by Griffiths via video from Amman, Jordan. The council strongly backed his efforts and Lowcock's and stressed again that "only negotiated settlement can bring the war to an end."
Russian U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia, the current council president, said discussions centered on "the need for de-escalation."
"We are hoping for the efforts of the special envoy to bring positive results on it, and we left it in his hands for the time being," Nebenzia said.
The international aid group Doctors Without Borders said Monday that the Saudi-led coalition attacked a cholera treatment center in the northern province of Hajja.
The aid group has temporarily frozen its activities in the area "until we guarantee the safety of our staff and patients," tweeted Joao Martins, head of the group's mission in Yemen.
Yemen has been embroiled in a civil war pitting the coalition against the Iran-backed Houthis since March 2015. The coalition aims to restore the government of self-exiled President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
The three-year war has killed more than 10,000 people and displaced more than 3 million. It has damaged Yemen's infrastructure, crippled its health system and pushed the Arab world's poorest country to the brink of famine.
The U.N. considers Yemen to be the world's worst humanitarian crisis, with more than 22.2 million people in need of assistance. Malnutrition, cholera and other diseases have killed or sickened thousands of civilians over the years.
Any full-scale attack on the port would be highly contentious. U.S. officials have warned the Emirati and Saudi governments that an offensive would result in a quagmire.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Monday that the United States urged all parties of the conflict to ensure humanitarian access to the Yemeni people. The United States, he said, is closely following developments and urged Emirati leaders to preserve "the free flow of humanitarian aid and life-saving commercial imports."
The U.S. has backed the Arab states in the war, but Abu Dhabi has received pushback from various U.S. officials who see the idea of an urban assault on a densely populated city as an unmitigated disaster, in both military and humanitarian terms.
Members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee have threatened to push forward a bill to cut off some military aid to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia as a penalty for what they say are punitive and indiscriminate attacks in Yemen that are responsible for thousands of civilian deaths.
Defense Secretary James Mattis has also privately sent messages to the Arab states, cautioning against any attack on Hodeida, according to two people familiar with the situation.
Information for this article was contributed by Ahmed Al-Haj and Edith M. Lederer of The Associated Press and by Margaret Coker of The New York Times.
A Section on 06/12/2018