AL DURAIHIMI - Yemeni pro-government forces were locked in heavy fighting with rebels that left 39 people dead on Thursday, as they pressed a Saudi and UAE-backed offensive to retake the key aid hub of Hodeida.

Yemeni forces backed by a Saudi-led coalition launched an assault on Wednesday to retake the port city of Hodeida, which has been controlled by the Iran-backed Huthi rebels along with the capital Sanaa since 2014.

The Huthis suffered 30 fatalities on Thursday in clashes near Hodeida airport south of the city, medical sources told AFP.

Nine pro-government troops were killed in the same area, the medics said. Military sources said the deaths were caused by mines and snipers.

The UAE, a driving force in the coalition, said four of its troops were killed on the first day of the offensive Wednesday including at least one navy officer.

The Huthis earlier said they had struck a coalition ship off the coast of Hodeida with two missiles.

On Thursday, authorities at Hodeida port said the Red Sea lifeline remained open to shipping.

“We still have seven ships in the port. The work in the port is normal. And we have five other ships standing by waiting outside to enter,” port director Dawood Fadel told AFP.

Two Saudi and UAE aid ships were in the waters off Hodeida, coalition spokesman Turki al-Maliki told Saudi state media. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, which intervened against the Huthis in 2015 with the goal of restoring Yemen’s government to power, have pledged to ensure a continuous flow of aid to the Arab world’s poorest nation. Abdullah al-Rabeeah, the head of Saudi Arabia’s King Salman Aid and Relief Centre, in a press conference Wednesday night sought to allay the fears of the international community.

“This coalition will start to operate an air and sea bridge, as well as land, to transport aid and medical supplies, food, shelter and fuel other basic necessities to Hodeida province,” he told reporters. International aid groups have long warned against an offensive on Hodeida because the port serves as the entry point for 70 percent of Yemen’s imports, as the country teeters on the brink of famine.

“The attacks we have feared and warned against are no longer impending, but underway,” the Norwegian Refugee Council’s acting country director Christopher Mzembe said Thursday. “As airstrikes intensify and frontlines move closer to Hodeida city, so does the very real threat of harm to civilians in Hodeida,” he said, urging the warring parties to return to political negotiations.

According to the NRC, nearly 15 percent of Yemen’s suspected cholera cases have occurred in Hodeida governorate.

The international aid group warned of a “high risk of a second outbreak” should water supplies be disrupted.

UN calls for port to be kept open

The UN Security Council on Thursday called for a key port in war-ravaged Yemen to be kept open to deliveries of vital food and humanitarian supplies after the Saudi-led coalition launched an offensive to seize Hodeida.

But the council brushed aside a call by Sweden, a non-permanent member, for a freeze to the military operation to allow time for talks on a rebel withdrawal from the Red Sea port.

The council met behind closed doors at Britain’s request following UN warnings of a looming humanitarian disaster from an all-out assault on Hodeida.

Following a two-hour closed-door meeting, Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia, who holds the council presidency, said council members were “united in their deep concern about the risks to the humanitarian situation.”

Council members “reiterated their call for the ports of Hodeida and Saleef to be kept open,” said Nebenzia.

The United Nations has warned that the military operation could cripple deliveries of commercial goods and humanitarian aid to millions of people in Yemen who are on the brink of famine. The Red Sea port, controlled by the Iran-backed Huthi rebels, serves as the entry point for 70 percent of the impoverished country’s imports, but the coalition maintains that the rebels use it to smuggle weapons.

“It is time for the Security Council to call for an immediate freeze of the military attack on Hodeida,” said Swedish Deputy Ambassador Carl Skau in a statement ahead of the meeting.

“This is needed to give the special envoy and United Nations-led efforts a chance to avert disaster and find a sustainable political solution to the conflict.”

It was the second time this week that the council has met to try to address the crisis in Yemen.

On Monday, the Security Council said it supported UN envoy Martin Griffiths, who is leading diplomatic efforts to convince the Huthi rebels to hand over control of the port.

The council did not call on Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, whose troops are backing Yemeni forces, to refrain from attacking Hodeida.

More than 22 million people in Yemen are in need of aid, including 8.4 million who are at risk of starvation, according to the United Nations, which considers Yemen to be the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.