The Saudi-led coalition resumed air strikes on Iran-aligned Houthi fighters holed up in the airport of Yemen's main port Hodeidah on Monday as civilians fled in search of shelter from the biggest battle of the war.
Apache attack helicopters fired at Houthi snipers and fighters positioned on the rooftops of schools and homes in the Manzar neighbourhood abutting the airport compound, residents said, in fighting that has wounded dozens of civilians and prevented aid organizations from reaching parts of the city.
Losing Hodeidah would seriously weaken the Houthis by severing supply lines from the Red Sea to their stronghold in the capital Sanaa. It could also give an edge to the Western-backed coalition that, despite superior weaponry and firepower, has failed to defeat the Houthis in a war that has killed 10,000 people and created the world's most urgent humanitarian crisis.
U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein voiced concern that the onslaught could endanger millions of civilians.
"I emphasise my grave worry regarding the Saudi and Emirati-led coalition's ongoing attacks in Hodeidah – which could result in enormous civilian casualties and have a disastrous impact on life-saving humanitarian aid to millions of people which comes through the port," Zeid told the opening of a three-week session of the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva on Monday.
The battle for Hodeidah, launched six days ago, could drag on, inflicting more suffering for civilians who have already endured air strikes, port blockades, hunger and a cholera epidemic.
Yehia Tanani said he and his family left Manzar three days ago and walked for 3 km (1.86 miles), hiding behind walls and under trees to avoid air strikes, before finding shelter at a fish farm. Others stayed to care for family members and cattle.
"They told us that some humanitarian organizations are going to send buses but then they said no buses could come in or out. So we started walking on foot carrying our children, sitting every while for rest while the Apaches hovered above us. We were scared not knowing if we'd be shot or not," he said.
"Now we're in this school, no mattresses, no electricity, no water, no bathrooms, nothing. And we have children who need medicine, need food, need anything, but we don't have anything," he said, sitting on the floor of an empty classroom of a school being used to house those displaced by the fighting.
Children slept on the floor of empty classrooms while others sat forlornly in the courtyard, where a few items of clothing and blankets were draped over balconies and upturned desks.
The Arab alliance has said it can take Hodeidah quickly enough to avoid interrupting aid and that it would focus on capturing the airport and port and avoid street fighting.
The coalition intervened in Yemen in 2015 to restore the internationally recognised government driven into exile by the Houthis, and thwart what Riyadh and Abu Dhabi see as efforts by arch-adversary Iran to dominate the region.
The Houthis rule the most populous areas of chronically unstable Yemen, a poor nation of about 30 million people.