The Latest: Saudis say 2 ships with food to dock at Hodeida

FILE - In this Oct. 29, 2000, file photo, a Yemeni police boat passes by the stricken USS Cole as it is pulled out of Aden port by Yemeni tugboats to deep water after an al-Qaida suicide attack in Aden, Yemen. Yemen's yearslong war between Shiite rebels and a Saudi-led coalition backing its exiled government has escalated with an assault on the insurgent-held port city of Hodeida. (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali, File)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The Latest on the battle for Hodeida in Yemen (all times local):

5:05 a.m.

Saudi Arabia's U.N. ambassador says there are two ships, each carrying 5,000 tons of food, ready to dock immediately at the port of Hodeida in Yemen, which is the target of the Saudi-led coalition's offensive to oust Houthi rebels.

Abdallah Al-Mouallimi said the ships — from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — are part of coalition efforts "toward ensuring abundant humanitarian supplies" to Hodeida during the offensive.

"Our desire in Hodeida is not to infuriate the Houthis or to kill as many of them as we possibly can," he told a group of U.N. reporters in New York on Thursday. "To the contrary, we have allowed them safe passage to the north of the city if they want to drop their arms and leave."

Al-Mouallimi also challenged reports calling Hodeida "a lifeline to Yemen for humanitarian aid."

He said "that is a matter of choice, not a matter of necessity," stressing that there are nine ports in Yemen and two others in Saudi Arabia that can reach the Yemeni people.

"It's decision of those who import aid," Al-Mouallimi said.

He said the coalition wants Hodeida to remain open, and plans to ship aid there because the infrastructure is there.


4:25 a.m.

The United Arab Emirates' ambassador to the United Nations says the military offensive by the UAE and Saudi-led coalition against Hodeida "is a deliberate, carefully prepared and executed operation."

Lana Nusseibeh told a group of U.N. reporters in New York on Thursday that coalition forces, under the direction of the Yemeni government, will move in "a calibrated, gradual" way.

She wouldn't speculate on the duration of the military operations saying: "We are facing a small, fanatical group of hardened fighters armed by Iran.

Nusseibeh called the offensive to oust the Houthi Shiite rebels "a critical step toward achieving a political solution to this conflict because we know there is no military solution."

She said the coalition believes it actions "can create the right dynamics" to help U.N. special envoy Martin Griffiths with his peace plan to end the three-year Yemen conflict.

"At every step along the way the Houthis will be given opportunities to retreat, to disarm and to come back to the negotiating process," Nusseibeh said.


4 a.m.

Yemen's foreign minister says military operations by the Saudi-led coalition are not taking place near Yemen's critical port of Hodeida but in an area close to the airport.

But Khaled Alyemany told a group of U.N. reporters in New York on Thursday that the government thinks Houthi Shiite rebels who control Hodeida "might blow up the installations of the seaport."

He said U.N. special envoy Martin Griffiths is working to prevent any damage to the infrastructure at the port.

Alyemany stressed that there is no military solution to the three-year conflict and the goal is to restart negotiations. "We think every time we push hard the Houthis accept to engage, and they will engage more," he said.

He said Yemeni forces and the coalition have liberates areas in the south and the north "and we are almost now in the areas close to our capital," Sanaa.

"And we think when the time is appropriate we (will) also push hard the Houthis to leave our capital and restore the stability in Yemen," Alyemany said.


10:30 p.m.

The U.N. Security Council is again calling for the key Yemeni ports of Hodeida and Saleef to be kept open and reiterating support for a political solution as the only way to end Yemen's three-year conflict.

In a press statement Thursday after an emergency closed-door meeting, the council expressed "deep concerns about the risks to the humanitarian situation" following the launch of an offensive against Hodeida by the Saudi-led coalition.

The council "urged all sides to uphold their obligations under international humanitarian law."

Britain's U.N. Ambassador Karen Pierce, who called the meeting, told reporters before it started that U.N. special envoy Martin Griffiths has been trying to negotiate the withdrawal of the Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, who control Hodeida.

Griffiths is expected to brief the council Monday, including on his proposals to restart negotiations to restore peace to Yemen.

Council members reaffirmed "their full support" for Griffiths' efforts.

Sweden had urged the council to call for an immediate freeze to military action on Hodeida, but the council statement made no such call, reflecting divisions among its 15 members.


9:45 p.m.

Yemen's president has returned to his country after apparently patching up relations with the United Arab Emirates, which along with Saudi Arabia is leading an assault on Yemen's rebel-held port city of Hodeida.

The state-run SABA news agency reported President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi's arrival in the southern city of Aden on Thursday.

Both Hadi's government and the UAE are part of the Saudi-led coalition that has been at war with Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, since March 2015. But Hadi's forces and fighters backed by the UAE have clashed on a number of occasions, and relations have been tense in recent months.

Earlier this week, Hadi visited Abu Dhabi's powerful crown prince, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

Yemeni officials told The Associated Press in November that Saudi Arabia had barred Hadi from returning home.


8 p.m.

Sweden is urging the U.N. Security Council to call for "an immediate freeze" in the attack on Yemen's port of Hodeida by Saudi-led coalition forces.

Swedish Deputy Ambassador Carl Skau said ahead of an emergency council meeting on Thursday that a halt to military operations is needed to give U.N. special envoy Martin Griffiths and U.N.-led efforts "a chance to avert disaster and find a sustainable political solution to the conflict."

Skau, whose country is serving a two-year term on the council, said: "Time is running out."

"We are at a crossroads in the conflict in Yemen," he said. "A full-scale assault on the port of Hodeida will tip the already dire humanitarian situation over the edge."

The coalition launched an offensive Wednesday to capture the strategic harbor held by Shiite Houthi rebels. Over 70 percent of Yemen's imports go through Hodeida.


7:10 p.m.

Yemen's Shiite rebels say they have foiled a naval attack by government forces backed by a Saudi-led coalition off the Red Sea port of Hodeida.

Col. Aziz Rashed, the spokesman for an army unit allied with the Houthi rebels, told a news conference Thursday in the capital, Sanaa, that the rebels have countered "hostile naval warships" off the coasty of al-Olifika, to the south.

He claimed that rebel forces hit a UAE warship near Hodeida with two missiles.

He says it will be "impossible" for the coalition to capture Hodeida.

The Saudi-led coalition launched an offensive Wednesday aimed at driving Iran-allied Houthi rebels from the port, which is the main entry point for food and aid to the war-torn country.


7 p.m.

Iran has condemned the Saudi-led coalition's assault on the Yemeni port city of Hodeida, which is controlled by rebels aligned with Tehran.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi said Thursday that "such crimes will shatter the hopes for political endeavors and will add to the complexity of the situation."

Ghasemi also expressed concern about the worsening humanitarian situation in the impoverished country, which has been driven to the brink of famine by more than three years of war.

The Saudi-led coalition, which is allied with Yemen's internationally recognized government, launched an offensive Wednesday aimed at driving Iran-allied Houthi rebels from the port, which is the main entry point for food and aid to the war-torn country.

Saudi Arabia has repeatedly accused Iran of sending weapons to the rebels, including the ballistic missiles they have fired into the kingdom. Iran denies arming the rebels.


5 p.m.

The Norwegian Refugee Council says the Yemeni port at Hodeida remains open amid a Saudi-led campaign to retake the city.

A statement Thursday from the relief agency said as of Wednesday, there were "four vessels filled with food and fuel at berth" and another five vessels at anchorage.

The council cited a United Nations statement acknowledging the port remained "fully operational."

The council added: "People in the governorate have reported heavy airstrikes along coastal areas and roads in districts south of Hodeida city. No direct attacks have been reported within Hodeida city itself, despite the overhead presence of fighter jets."

The Saudi-led coalition launched an offensive Wednesday aimed at driving Iran-allied Houthi rebels from the port, which is the main entry point for food and aid to the war-torn country.


2:45 p.m.

The United Arab Emirates' ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva says the four Emirati troops who were killed in Yemen were taking part in the campaign to retake the port city of Hodeida.

Ambassador Obaid Salem al-Zaabi made the comments during a news conference with journalists Thursday.

Al-Zaabi declined to offer further specifics about the soldiers' deaths.

Asked whether he worried the Shiite rebels known as Houthis would damage the crucial Yemen port, the ambassador said: "They will damage it, but we have plans for that."

He added that the UAE and the Saudi-led coalition went ahead with the campaign despite knowing that international aid agencies fear it could lead to a humanitarian crisis. The Red Sea port of Hodeida is the main entry for food into a country already on the brink of famine.


1:30 p.m.

The Yemeni government-controlled SABA news agency has reported that government forces, backed by a Saudi-led coalition, have taken control of a town south of the port city of Hodeida.

SABA reported late Wednesday the forces captured the town of Nakhilia in the district of ad-Durayhimi about 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) south of Hodeida International Airport.

The news agency says fierce battles have raged between government forces and Shiite rebel Houthis in areas on the outskirts of Hodeida.

The Saudi-led coalition backing Yemen's exiled government began an assault on the key port city of Hodeida on Wednesday.

Hodeida is the main entry for food into a country already on the brink of famine. That has raised warnings from aid agencies that Yemen's humanitarian disaster could deepen.


11:30 a.m.

Fighting around the Yemen port city of Hodeida has resumed as a Saudi-led coalition tries to retake it from Shiite rebels known as Houthis.

Witnesses described heavy fighting to the city's south on Thursday morning, near its airport.

The Saudi-led coalition backing Yemen's exiled government began the assault on the port city of Hodeida (hoh-DY'-duh) on Wednesday.

Hodeida is the main entry for food into a country already on the brink of famine. That has raised warnings from aid agencies that Yemen's humanitarian disaster could deepen.

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