Yemen’s Houthi rebels say at least 15 people have been killed in air raids by a Saudi-UAE coalition targeting a strategic highway linking the port city of Hodeida with the capital, Sanaa.
Fighting near Hodeidah – the main gateway for imports of relief supplies and commercial goods into the war-ravaged country – has escalated since June after the Saudi-UAE military alliance battling the Houthis launched a wide-ranging operation to retake the strategic seaport.
The Houthi-affiliated Al-Masirah news outlet said on Friday the attack on Thursday struck the Kilo 16 highway, the main supply route heading east out of Hodeidah.
More than 20 people were reported wounded.
Al Jazeera could not independently verify the figures.
The reported assault came just days after the Yemeni army, backed by coalition air support, made inroads into the Kilo 16 area.
Amanda Brydon, humanitarian policy adviser at Save the Children, said the highway 16 is critical for humanitarian aid.
“What we are seeing with the fighting is the critical junction at Kilo 16 is the artery towards Sanaa and other parts of the country.”
“The port [of Hodeidah] is a lifeline for the rest of the country. Over 80 percent of the country’s commercial imports come through this port,” she told Al Jazeera.
WATCH: Yemen’s Geneva talks fall apart after Houthi no-show
The offensive is being carried out by a disparate collective of forces, including the National Resistance, a group of fighters loyal to Yemen’s former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Tihama Resistance, a group of fighters loyal to Yemen’s President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, and the Giant Brigades, a military unit backed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Riyadh and Abu Dhabi see Hodeidah port as the main entry point of weapons for the Houthis and have accused their regional rival Iran of sending missiles to the rebels, a charge Tehran has denied.
‘Struggling to survive’
On Thursday, the United Nations said ongoing violence could trigger famine in the impoverished nation where an estimated 8.4 million people are facing starvation.
“The situation has dramatically deteriorated in the past few days … people are struggling to survive”, Lise Grande, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, said in a statement.
“We’re particularly worried about the Red Sea mill, which currently has 45,000 metric tonnes of food inside, enough to feed 3.5 million people for a month. If the mills are damaged or disrupted, the human cost will be incalculable,” Grande added
The war in Yemen, the region’s poorest country, has unleashed the world’s most urgent humanitarian crisis. It started in 2014 when the Houthis overran much of the country, including Sanaa.
The conflict escalated in 2015 with the intervention of the Saudi-led coalition which launched a massive air campaign aimed at rolling back Houthi gains and supporting the pro-government forces loyal to President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
According to the UN, at least 10,000 people have been killed since the coalition intervened in Yemen.The death toll has not been updated in years and is likely to be far higher.
In a separate development, talks on Thursday held in Oman’s capital, Muscat ,between the UN’s envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths and delegation of Houthis ended wiwthout a breakthrough, according to the rebels.
“There has not been progress regarding the discussions while we have not received the guarantees,” Hamid Assem, a member of the Houthi delegation, told AFP news agency.
In the talks, Mohammed Abdulsalam, who headed the Houthi delegation alongside fellow rebel official Abdelmalak al-Ajri, discussed the reasons for their absence from peace talks planned to be held in Geneva last week.
Those talks, which would have been the first in nearly two years, were scheduled to start on September 6 but the Yemeni government’s delegation left after the Houthis failed to show up.
The rebels accused the UN of failing to provide guarantees for the safe return of their delegation from Switzerland to Sanaa and to secure the evacuation of wounded rebels to Oman.
Thursday’s talks in Muscat also covered “necessary measures” needed for fresh talks set for “as soon as possible”, the rebel-affiliated Saba news agency said.
Griffiths is also scheduled to visit Sanaa and Saudi Arabia.