ADEN // Houthi rebel forces fought battles street by street with local militia in the old centre of Aden on Wednesday, as the first boatloads of emergency medical aid arrived to the south Yemeni port city which aid workers say faces a humanitarian catastrophe.
At least 22 people were killed and more than 70 wounded when rebel forces “randomly shelled ... civilian homes” in the city’s Mualla and Crater districts, a medic and local official said.
Meanwhile, Iran, which Saudi Arabia has accused of backing the rebels, sent two warships to the Gulf of Aden on Wednesday, saying they would protect Iranian shipping.
Residents saw a dozen bodies strewn on the streets of Aden and said several buildings were burnt or demolished by rocket fire. Mosques broadcast appeals for jihad against the Houthis, Shiite fighters who have taken over large areas of Yemen, including the capital Sanaa.
By midafternoon, residents of the central Crater district said the Houthi push, backed by tanks and armoured vehicles, had been at least partially repelled, and that the rebels had been cleared from some northern neighbourhoods.
Aden has been the target of a three-week-long assault by the Houthis, which prompted a Saudi-led coalition to launch countrywide air strikes against the rebels.
The fighting has had a devastating impact on parts of Aden. Scores of people have been killed, water and electricity have been cut off in central neighbourhoods, and hospitals have struggled to cope with the casualties.
“It’s nearly catastrophic,” said the International Committee of the Red Cross spokeswoman in Yemen, Marie Claire Feghali.
“Shops are closed, so people cannot get food, they cannot get water. There are still dead bodies in the street. Hospitals are extremely exhausted.”
A boat carrying 2.5 tonnes of medicine docked in Aden on Wednesday, the medical aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres said. MSF said it was the first shipment that the group had delivered to Aden since the fighting escalated.
The ICRC said a surgical team also reached Aden on Wednesday by boat, and was heading to a hospital in the city of 1 million people.
The World Health Organisation says at least 643 people have been killed in the conflict and more than 2,200 wounded. Tens of thousands of families have been displaced by fighting on the ground and by the air strikes.
Saudi Arabia’s leading role against the Houthis has turned Yemen into the latest theatre of a regional proxy conflict between the Middle East’s leading Sunni and Shiite powers – a struggle also playing out in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq.
Tehran, which is accused of backing the Houthis, has called for an immediate halt to coalition air strikes and appealed for dialogue.
The country’s Alborz destroyer and Bushehr support vessel will patrol the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea to protect Iranian shipping from piracy, said Iranian navy chief Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari.
The United States, a major Saudi ally, said on Tuesday that it was speeding up arms supplies for the offensive, and had increased intelligence sharing and planning coordination.
Saudi Arabia has deployed 100 jets in its air campaign, alongside 30 from the UAE, 15 each from Kuwait and Bahrain, and 10 from Qatar. Sudan, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco have also supported the campaign.
Overnight, warplanes struck Al Anad airbase, about 50 kilometres north of Aden.
The base, which once housed US military personnel involved in Washington’s covert drone war against Al Qaeda fighters in eastern Yemen, has been taken over by soldiers loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who are allied to the Houthis.
There were also air strikes against Houthi positions in the town of Dhalea, further north from Al Anad.