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The United Arab Emirates says it has started flying and sailing aid to Yemen's port city of Hodeida, where its troops in a Saudi-led coalition are fighting Shiite rebels.

Warplanes also struck the main road linking Hudaida to the capital Sanaa to block reinforcements to the Houthis, the Iran-aligned movement that controls the capital and most of Yemen's populated areas.

But a Huthi attack some 80 kilometres (50 miles) south of the city provided a diversion, cutting loyalist forces off from the government-held ports of Khokha and Mokha, sparking fresh clashes along the coastline.

The UN estimates some 600,000 people live in and around the city.

An official of the United Arab Emirates, part of the coalition, told Reuters on Thursday that France had agreed to provide minesweeping support for the operation and that UAE intelligence indicated that the Houthi rebels, who control the city, had mined the port.

But how significant is the assault on the port in the long course of the war in Yemen?

"What most observers fail to understand, after just tuning in to Hodeidah, is that the UAE and its Yemeni partners have been preparing to liberate the port since 2016 to weaken the Houthis, create leverage for negotiators, limit the rebels' ability to import Iranian-provided arms, and bring the port back up to full capacity as a humanitarian import hub", wrote Middle East expert Michael Knights for the National, an Abu Dhabi-based newspaper.

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The U.N. Special Envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, is due to arrive in Sanaa on Saturday.

The Houthi-run Al Masirah satellite news channel aired footage it described as being from near Hodeida showing a burned-out truck, corpses of irregular fighters and a damaged Emirati armoured vehicle.

The United Nations is struggling to avert disruption to the port, the main lifeline for food aid to a country where 8.4 million people are on the verge of starvation, potentially the world's worst famine for generations. Saudi Arabia's United Nations ambassador said there were two ships, each carrying 5,000 tons of food, ready to dock immediately at the port of Hodeida. "Their use of land and sea mines shows a cruel & callous disregard for Yemeni lives", Gargash said in a tweet.

The ground offensive south of Hodeida is led by the United Arab Emirates, a key ally of both Saudi Arabia and the USA military.

The assault on Hodeidah, the largest battle thus far in the three-year war, is ongoing after the UN Security Council on Wednesday rejected a joint statement calling for the coalition to halt the operation.

"Four government soldiers were killed in the fighting while more than 10 others were injured", a military source, who preferred not to be named, told Anadolu Agency.

"Should we leave the Houthis smuggling missiles?"

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Meanwhile, Col. Aziz Rashed, the spokesman for an army unit allied with the Houthis, told a news conference in the capital, Sanaa, that the rebels foiled a naval attack by government forces backed by the Saudi-led coalition in waters off Hodeida. He said, "The Yemeni portis a lifeline for the delivery of aid and the Coalition's air attacks can kill many more people over time through starvation and hunger when damaging such civilian infrastructure".

A military official told AFP on Friday the government alliance had approached to within just two kilometres of Hodeida's worldwide airport, just inland from the port.

Aid workers have warned the assault on Hodieda's port, known as the "mouth of Yemen", could shut down the vital route for some 70 percent of Yemen's food and humanitarian aid.

The ambassador's comments contradict the conclusions of a United Nations panel of experts that said it was unlikely the Houthis were using the port for smuggling arms.

An worldwide rights group has urged the United Nations Security Council to warn parties to the Yemen war that they will face sanctions if they fail to provide civilians access to desperately needed aid.

Saudi air defenses on Thursday intercepted a ballistic missile fired from rebel-held territory in neighboring Yemen, state media reported, as a Riyadh-led military coalition pushes a major offensive to capture a strategic port.

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