AL HUDAYDAH, Yemen — Fighting raged Saturday around the international airport outside the Yemeni port of Al Hudaydah as fighters with a Saudi-led Arab coalition pressed their four-day-old offensive to seize the rebel-held city that is the gateway for food supplies to the famine-stricken country.
Officials loyal to Yemen's exiled government claimed their forces backed by the coalition had seized the airport, which lies just south of the city, and deployed engineers to clear explosives. But Iran-backed Houthi rebels launched a counteroffensive amid reports of heavy fighting at the airport gates and inside the sprawling compound, which has been closed since 2014.
By Saturday afternoon, warplanes had struck Houthi targets on the edge of the city and fighting spread to a major road leading to the Houthi-held capital, Sana, blocking a key exit from the city. Hundreds of thousands of residents trapped in the city huddled in their homes, many wondering nervously if the fight will reach them.
The battle for Al Hudaydah is shaping up to be the biggest and possibly most consequential of a war that started in 2015 when the Saudi-led coalition attacked the Houthis, who had seized the Yemeni capital a year earlier.
The attacking force is commanded by military advisers from the United Arab Emirates, a close ally of Saudi Arabia, while the vast majority of the fighters are with allied Yemeni groups, as well as smaller numbers of Sudanese fighters. Victory in Al Hudaydah would give them the upper hand in a seemingly intractable war that has claimed thousands of civilian lives.
The United Nations and international aid agencies are warning of dire consequences if the fighting stops operations at Al Hudaydah port, which is the entry point for 70 percent of food and fuel supplies in a country where eight million people are teetering on the brink of starvation.
As the fighting escalated, the United Nations special envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, landed in Sana in an effort to broker a cease-fire. The United Nations hopes to persuade the Houthis to cede control of the port to an international committee to avert disruption to aid supplies and further bloodshed.
The city of 600,000 people was largely deserted on Saturday afternoon as nervous residents cowered in their homes, listening to the gunfire and airstrikes with a growing sense of trepidation. There were few signs of celebrations to mark the three-day Eid al-Fitr holiday, which began on Friday to mark the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan.
Even the market selling khat, a mild stimulant used by most Yemenis, had fallen quiet.
Ahmed Abdu, 39, a father of four who would normally have taken his family to the beach or park to celebrate Eid, said they were sheltering in their house, fearing the fighting could reach them at any moment.
"This our home," he said. "We have nowhere else to go."
If the Houthis can be forced from the port, a vital supply line and source of income for the rebels, it could force them to the negotiating table.
But a protracted fight with heavy civilian casualties would be disastrous for the Saudi-led coalition, which has faced a wave of international criticism for its role in fomenting what is widely described as the world's worst humanitarian crisis.
The war is part of a broader regional conflagration pitting Saudi Arabia and its ally the United Arab Emirates against Iran. The coalition accuses the Iranians of supplying the Houthis with hundreds of missiles that have been fired into neighboring Saudi Arabia, and which they say have been smuggled through the port at Al Hudaydah.
Iran denies supplying the missiles and United Nations inspectors said in a report in January that it was "unlikely" they could come through Al Hudaydah because of a strict inspections regime at the port.
Emirati officials say they have been planning the assault on Al Hudaydah for two years, and are confident they can take the port quickly and without disrupting the flow of humanitarian supplies.
But previous predictions of rapid battlefield victory have proven hollow in Yemen, and the soaring humanitarian cost of the war — in particular, a punishing campaign of Saudi airstrikes that has killed thousands of civilians and drawn accusations of war crimes — has given pause to some of the coalition's Western backers.
The United States military is helping the Saudi-led coalition with flight refueling and information to avoid civilian casualties. But last week, it declined an Emirati request for intelligence, reconnaissance aircraft and Navy minesweepers for the Al Hudaydah operation amid growing opposition in Congress to the offensive.
France stepped in, offering to send teams of specialists to clear the waters around the port of mines, Emirati officials said on Thursday. But on Friday the French Defense Ministry said that it was considering mine-sweeping operations only after the military operation is over, and emphasized that France was not part of the coalition.
Emirati miliary advisers are leading a force of about 5,000, most of them locally recruited Yemeni troops, according to a senior Emirati official. He declined to specify the number of Emiratis, but the figure is likely to be several hundred, if not more than 1,000 to manage a force that size, and to call in airstrikes.
The World Health Organization estimates that at least 10,000 Yemenis have died as a result of the war, although other estimates put the figure as high as 44,000. More than 75 percent of Yemen's population relies on humanitarian aid.
As fighting has spread around the airport, retreating Houthi fighters took up positions in houses in a nearby village. At least two civilians were killed in fighting and 26 injured, including seven children, according to officials at Al Thawrah Hospital in Al Hudaydah.
Saleem Al-Shamiri, an official with the Norwegian Refugee Council in Sana who has close family in Al Hudaydah, said city residents were fearful about the approaching fighting.
"The situation is getting scarier. People feel more tension with every day that passes, wondering what will happen tomorrow, or next week, or in a few minutes," he said.
Some residents of the besieged port reached for a semblance of normality on a major public holiday. Late Saturday a few dozen families gathered in a public park to watch World Cup soccer on a giant outdoor screen, even as airstrikes could be heard in the distance.
Others thought it safer to stay home. Hassan Mosa, a father of seven who makes his living with a donkey-cart in the town center, said he barely had enough money to feed his family let alone move to another city.
"Where to go?" He said. "We will just stay at our house and wait for God's mercy."
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