Saudi-Led Alliance Gears Up for Battle in Key Yemeni Port City

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Yemen pro-government forces launched an offensive on Wednesday to seize the key port city of Hodeida from Huthi rebels, field commanders told AFP.

The biggest offensive of the years-long war in the Arab world's poorest nation has raised warnings from aid agencies that Yemen's humanitarian disaster could deepen. Meanwhile, the U.N. and Western nations say Iran has supplied the Houthis with weapons from assault rifles up to the ballistic missiles they have fired deep into Saudi Arabia, including at the capital, Riyadh.

There was no immediate word from state media in either Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, which lead a coalition backing Yemen's exiled government.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has said that U.N. envoy Martin Griffiths is in "intense negotiations" in an attempt to avoid a military confrontation.

Early on Wednesday, convoys of vehicles headed towards the rebel-held city as heavy gunfire rang out.

The Houthi-run Al Masirah satellite news channel claimed rebel forces hit a Saudi coalition ship near Hodeida with two missiles.

The U.S. has been supplying targeting information to the Saudi-led coalition, as well as refuelling their warplanes, but was not involved in military operations at the port, Pentagon spokesman Maj.

The sources said Yemeni forces allied to the Saudi-led coalition - drawn from southern separatists, local units from the Red Sea coastal plain and a battalion led by a nephew of late former president Ali Abdullah Saleh - had advanced and were "at the doors" of Hodeidah airport.

The commanders spoke to an AFP correspondent in the town of Al Jah, approximately 30 kilometres (20 miles) southeast of rebel-held Hodeida.

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"We are not giving up", a Security Council diplomat said.

Emirati-led troops have advanced along the southwestern coast to the outskirts of Hodeidah under a coalition strategy to box in the Houthis in the capital Sanaa and choke off their supply lines to force them to the negotiating table.

The Red Sea port serves as the entry point for 70 percent of Yemen's imports as the country teeters on the brink of starvation. The Saudi-led coalition entered the war in March 2015.

"As has been the case since the beginning of the war, the cost of the battle for Hodeida will largely accrue to the already impoverished civilian population", the International Crisis Group warned in a report Monday.

Griffiths is scheduled to brief the Security Council on a proposed roadmap for peace talks next Monday.

The United Nations and other aid groups had pulled their worldwide staff from Hodeida ahead of the rumored assault.

The Security Council has strongly supported efforts by new United Nations special envoy Martin Griffiths to resume political negotiations and avoid a military escalation of the three-year-long conflict that has killed more than 10,000 people, displaced more than 2 million, and created the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

"We hear sounds of explosions".