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Fog of war clouds Hodeidah airport as media disagree about who controls site

Who has the upper hand in Operation Golden Victory? The Yemeni battle has spilled into a war of words and images with conflicting reports
Members of the UAE-backed fighters the Giants' Brigade near Hodeidah airport on 19 June (Reuters)

The battle for Hodeidah, a strategic port city on Yemen’s Red Sea coast, has made headlines around the world, yet conflicting reports have left many confused about the offensive’s progress.

Since the battle between pro-Yemeni government forces and Houthi rebels defending the city began last week, no part of Hodeidah has been more keenly contested than the airport.

However, reliable information about the struggle over the sprawling airport complex has been hard to come by, with Arabic media carrying conflicting reports on the battle.

What you need to know: The battle for Hodeidah
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The Hodeidah offensive, known as Operation Golden Victory, is now nine days old and has left nearly 350 people dead, of whom more than half – including 156 Houthi troops and 28 coalition soldiers - were killed at the airport, military and medical sources have told AFP.

Golden Victory is being conducted by several Yemeni factions and mercenaries led by Tareq Saleh, nephew of the late former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was killed in December 2017 by the Houthis when it became clear he was about to turn on his erstwhile allies.

Saleh’s forces are backed by Emirati troops on the ground and Saudi and UAE warplanes and Apache attack helicopters. Offshore are Saudi and Emirati battleships.

The remains of a plane near the airport on 20 June (Reuters)
The airport has not had a functioning airstrip for some time but it is nonetheless a strategic asset for either side.

Since taking the city in 2014, the Houthi rebels have used the compound as a military base, and it lies just 8km from the Hodeidah’s port.

The city's seaport is the gateway for approximately 80 percent of essential food, medical and commercial supplies into the country.

Houthis holding on?

On Thursday, a day after UAE-backed Yemeni forces announced their takeover of Hodeidah airport, Doha-based Al Jazeera published a story titled “Is Hodeidah airport still in the hands of Houthis?”

The story cited footage broadcast by the pro-Houthi TV channel Al-Masirah, “from the heart of the airport”, showing a rebel leader announcing his forces still control the airport.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday evening, a Houthi spokesperson, Mohamed al-Bukhaiti, posted a Facebook video of himself in the arrivals terminal at Hodeidah airport.

He said the date of the video was Thursday 20 June – but Thursday was actually 21 June. He also denied reports by UAE and Saudi media that the anti-Houthi coalition had seized the airport.

Baseem al-Jenani, an independent Yemeni journalist from Hodeidah, told Middle East Eye that the Houthis had used a "fabricated video", recorded before the anti-Houthi fighters entered the airport.

Similarly, Tasnim, a news agency in Houthi-backing Iran, reported on Wednesday that the airport was still under the control of rebel forces, citing Houthi spokesperson Brigadier General Sharaf Luqman.

Criticised coverage

Footage allegedly showing a quite different version of events has been aired as well.

On Tuesday, before the coalition even announced seizing the compound, UAE-based Sky News Arabia posted footage from Hodeidah airport, showing pro-Yemeni government fighters celebrating its capture.

The conflicting reports have drawn the ire of coalition officials.

'Qatar’s stance is a reflection of the Iranian-Houthi aggression'

- UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash

UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash criticised Al Jazeera’s coverage of the battle, accusing the state-run Qatari outlet of having a pro-Iran agenda.

“Qatar's policy towards Iran, [rebel leader Abdul Malik] al-Houthi and Hezbollah and its justification for renewed old relations with Israel is not supported by the people of Qatar,” he said in a tweet on Thursday.

“Qatar’s stance is a reflection of the Iranian-Houthi aggression,” he said in another tweet.

Either way, it appears the battle for Hodeidah airport is indeed over, with residents reporting a quietening of battlesounds there and movement of troops up towards the port.

A senior military commander in the so-called Giants' Brigade, a Yemeni force backed by the UAE, told MEE on Thursday that his troops have captured the entire airport. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the press.

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