Forces loyal to the former Yemeni government stormed the airport in the country’s main port Hodeida on Tuesday and captured large areas of the compound in battles with Houthis, local sources and the UAE said.
"They have stormed the airport," an anti-Houthi Yemeni military source said.
Witnesses said warships and warplanes from the Saudi-led coalition have been hitting the airport and the east side of Hodeida around the clock since late Monday, aiming at cutting off the main road that links the port province and the capital, Sana’a.
"This is the first time we hear the clashes so clearly. We can hear the sound of artillery and machinegun fire," said a resident who requested anonymity. Warplanes had bombarded the airport earlier in the morning, the resident added.
The UAE state news agency WAM said large swathes of the airport compound had been taken by coalition forces.
Troops from the UAE and neighboring Saudi Arabia are the mainstay of an Arab coalition that has been fighting the Houthis in support of Yemen’s former government since 2015.
The coalition launched a major offensive on Wednesday to drive the Houthis out of Hodeida, a Red Sea port which is the entry point for some three-quarters of Yemen's imports.
The Houthis control most of the populated areas in the chronically unstable nation of 30 million people.
The escalation in fighting has hampered humanitarian agencies trying to send vital aid to millions of Yemenis via port.
Tuesday's battles spread panic among local inhabitants.
Senior Houthi official Mohammed al-Bukaiti confirmed fierce fighting at the southern side of the Hodeida airport. “Battles are raging south of the airport under unprecedented air cover,” he wrote on Facebook on Tuesday.
Also on Tuesday, the Saudi-led coalition bombed a bus carrying civilians killing six people on the outskirts of Hodeida, a senior Houthi-linked health official said.
Yahia Sharaf Eddin said four of the dead were women and that the strike took place in the district of Gharasi.
The United Nations has described the conflict as the world's largest single humanitarian catastrophe.
The world body fears the offensive will worsen what is already the world's most urgent humanitarian crisis, with 22 million Yemenis dependent on aid, and an estimated 8.4 million believed to be on the verge of starvation.
UN officials estimate that 600,000 people live in and around Hodeida and that in a worst-case scenario the battles could cost up to 250,000 lives.
Hodeida port remained open on Tuesday with the UN World Food Programme racing to unload three ships containing enough food for six million people for one month, WFP spokeswoman Bettina Luescher told reporters in Geneva.
Meanwhile, United Nations special envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths left Sana’a after three days of talks with Houthi leaders. He briefed the UN Security Council on Monday by video from Sana'a on his proposals to restart political negotiations to end the three-year conflict.
Reuters, AP and AFP contributed to this story.