Houthi rebels in the port city of Hodeidah were rounding up civilians on Sunday and detaining them in prisons near arms depots to prevent coalition air strikes knocking out the Iranian-armed group's equipment, witnesses told The National.
Dr Mansour Al Qudasi, head of the media department at Al Hodeidah University, told The National that Houthi patrols were taking the civilians to detention centres near weapon and ammunition caches to be used as human shields, accusing them of co-operating with the pro-government forces.
He said the Houthis had tried to force senior academic staff at the university to go to nearby areas of the Tihama coast to recruit students to take up arms and join the rebels. The Houthis threatened to arrest the teachers if they failed to go and persuade students to enlist.
UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Dr Anwar Gargash, briefed members of the international community on Sunday, saying that the ground offensive was “calibrated to help UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths in his difficult task to persuade the Houthis to facilitate the peaceful and unconditional handover of Hodeidah to the legitimate Yemeni government”.
Dr Gargash stressed that extraordinary measures are being taken to ensure that the civilian impact is minimised when dealing with an enemy that places snipers within villages and has indiscriminately used mines in its violent campaign to hold power, the state news agency Wam reported.
He stressed that civilians in Hodeidah "do not want to be governed by Iranian-backed religious extremists. They want to be free".
The round-ups of civilians came as Yemeni troops backed by the Arab-led coalition battled Houthi fighters around Hodeidah International Airport on Sunday. Captured rebels revealed plans to blow up the terminal rather than give it up to government forces.
Witnesses and Yemeni commanders said fighting raged, with both sides trading mortar fire and Saudi planes carrying out air strikes.
However, the internationally backed forces completed a pincer movement on the airport by securing routes from the west and east, cutting off the Houthi rebels occupying the airstrip, Abdulwahab Shoubail, media officer for the Tihama Resistance forces, told The National.
Lt Omar Saleh, spokesman for the Yemeni army's former elite Al Amalikah brigades — rebuilt with the help of the UAE — said that two Houthi conscripts captured during fighting admitted that the Iran-backed group was planning to destroy the terminals if government forces pushed their offensive on Hodeidah. The airport has been closed since 2014.
“The two newly-recruited Houthis were arrested on Saturday during clashes near the airport, and they said that mines experts were planting explosives at the terminals,” he said. “They planted thousands of landmines in the airport.”
A large number of landmines and improvised explosives devices (IEDs) laid by Houthi rebels have slowed the advance of government forces since the offensive started last Wednesday. Despite the front line ebbing and flowing through the weekend, the internationally backed forces have made significant gains along the coast towards the city in recent days as they attempt to cut off key rebel supply lines.
A source from Al Amalikah told The National that three brigades were preparing for a major push west of Hodiedah to cut the only supply route from the port city to Sanaa, the rebel-held capital, and Saada, the main stronghold of the rebel group.
At least 139 rebels have been killed since the launch of the operation on Wednesday, according to medical and military sources.
Lt Saleh said the rebel fighters captured near the airport had been instructed to “to die rather than give up Hodeidah because ‘controlling Hodeidah means controlling Sanaa’.”
The Houthis had detained the men and forced them to fight, he said.
“When we caught them, they were terrified and expected us to kill them. However, after they realised we were treating them nicely, they calmed down and started answering our questions,” he said.
“They told us that the Houthi militia forced them to fight in Hodeidah after threatening them.”
Houthi fighters stormed homes in Sanaa, Amran and Al Mahwit provinces and told the men there that they either agree to fight or go to prison, Lt Saleh cited the detainees as saying.
“One of the young men said that his father was arrested by the Houthis and sent to prison because he refused to fight. He was told that they were going to kill him for treason, so the young man offered himself up to fight instead,” said Lt Saleh.
“The Houthis only agreed to release the man’s father, who was extremely sick, after he agreed to fight for them.”
Mohammed Ali Al Shelli, a Yemeni activist, said he would not put it past the Houthis to blow up the airport terminal or force people into fighting.
"I expect them to do anything if pro-government forces take over the airport because they have no concern for anyone or anything. It wouldn't be the first time they committed a horrible crime," he told The National.
“They have blown up civilian residences, the only hospital for cancer treatment in Taez and stormed mosques in Hodeidah to turn into halls for fighters.
“They’ve even targeted ambulances. So I expect them to do anything.”
The fighting came as Mr Griffiths held a second day of talks with rebels in Sanaa. Although his meetings have been kept under wraps, he is believed to be pressing the Houthis to cede control of the Red Sea port to a UN-supervised committee that would allow deliveries of commercial goods and aid to continue to flow.
However, Houthi rebels accuse the UN of being biased towards the government of the internationally recognised president, Abdrabu Mansur Hadi. Multiple rounds of peace talks have made little progress.
Dr Gargash said he believed Hodeidah "will be a turning point because as long as the Houthis hold Hodeidah, they will continue to impede the political process". He added that the UAE was fully committed to a political solution to the conflict.
Hodeidah's port handles 80 per cent of essential goods going into Yemen, which the UN says is grappling with the world's worst humanitarian crisis. About 8.4 million people in Yemen face conditions close to famine, according to the World Health Organisation.
Despite the fighting, Mr Gargash said the UAE was preparing a surge in humanitarian supplies for affected civilians. He said 10 ships loaded with food and medical supplies were close to or on their way to Hodeidah and road convoys were heading north from Aden to pre-position supplies.
The Emirates Red Crescent said it had started distributing aid in liberated areas of Hodeidah on Sunday. Hareb Al Awani, a member of the ERC team on the Yemen's Red Sea Coast, said it was also supporting the efforts to liberate Hodeidah by launching development projects.
The Norwegian Refugee Council — which is still operating in the city — said that commercial ships with vital food and supplies continued to dock at Hodeidah port but warned that there was less shipping traffic than usual and this could mean less commercial food in the markets. If this is the case, civilians could become more reliant on aid ships like those dispatched by the UAE.
However, the coalition is confident it can capture Hodeidah without major disruption to aid supplies.
Coalition-backed government forces are making a concerted effort to reach the port to prevent the Houthis destroying it as they try to cling on to the city. The coalition says the rebels have been using the port to smuggle in weapons supplied by Iran, including ballistic missiles, and profiting from illegally sold humanitarian aid. Their aim is to box the Houthis into Sanaa, cut off their supply lines and force them to the negotiating table.
The coalition, which includes the UAE, intervened in the war in March 2015 at the request of Mr Hadi's government.