Yemeni pro-government forces thrusting into rebel-held Hodeida advance towards the city's vital port through which nearly all UN-supervised humanitarian aid passes

Hodeida (Yemen) (AFP) - Yemeni pro-government forces advanced into rebel-held Hodeida Thursday, leaving hundreds of thousands of civilians bracing for fighting in the city’s streets.

After a week of intense battles on the outskirts of Hodeida, loyalist troops reached residential neighbourhoods, using bulldozers to remove concrete road blocks installed by the rebels, who have held the Red Sea port city since 2014.

Three military sources told AFP that government forces and their Saudi-led coalition allies were edging towards the city’s vital docks through which nearly 80 percent of Yemen’s commercial imports and practically all UN-supervised humanitarian aid pass.

Columns headed for the port advanced two kilometres (more than a mile) along the main road from the interior to the east and three kilometres (nearly two miles) along the coast road from the south, the sources said.

Flashing victory signs, troops of the United Arab Emirates-trained Giants Brigade armed with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades rolled down the city’s streets on the back of pickup trucks bearing their brigade logo spray-painted in red.

“Either the rebels surrender the city peacefully or we take it by force, but we will take it either way,” commander Moammar al-Saidy told AFP.

Yemeni pro-government fighters use bulldozers to smash though rebel defences as they advance towards Hodeida's vital docks

Coalition warplanes bombed rebel positions as the ground forces advanced.

At least 47 Huthi fighters were killed, hospital-sources in rebel-held areas told AFP.

Medics at hospitals in government-held territory said 11 soldiers were killed.

The deaths bring the overall toll from seven days of fighting to 250 combatants killed – 197 rebels and 53 loyalists.

Aid group Save the Children has confirmed the death of one civilian, a 15-year-old boy who died of shrapnel wounds sustained just outside the city.

The rebels have controlled Hodeida since 2014 when they overran the capital Sanaa and then swept though much of the rest of the country, triggering Saudi-led military intervention the following year and a devastating war of attrition.

The rebels have since been driven out of virtually all of the south and much of the Red Sea coast.

Human rights groups have voiced fears that a protracted battle for Hodeida will exact heavy casualties among its 600,000-strong civlian population and force a halt to vital food shipments for some 14 million people at risk of famine

Government forces launched their offensive to retake Hodeida in June backed by significant numbers of Emirati ground troops.

Their advance into the city of some 600,000 people has been slowed by trenches and minefields dug by the rebels around their last major coastal stronghold, an army source said.

- ‘No surrender’ -

Rebel chief Abdulmalik al-Huthi vowed late on Wednesday that his fighters would never surrender to the Saudi-led coalition despite being seriously outnumbered.

“The enemy benefits from its numbers, which it has increased even further to pressure the city of Hodeida,” al-Huthi said.

“Does the enemy think that penetrating this or that area, or seizing this or that area, means we will be convinced that we should surrender and hand over control?

“This is not happening and will not happen ever.”

Maps showing famine risk and internal displacement in Yemen.

Human rights groups have voiced fears that a protracted battle for the city will exact heavy civilian casualties and force a halt to vital food shipments.

UN agencies say some 14 million people are at risk of famine in Yemen, which they have described as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Aid groups have appealed to both the rebels and the coalition to provide safe passage for fleeing civilians.

On Thursday, Amnesty International accused the rebels of “deliberate militarisation” of one of Hodeida’s main hospitals.

The human rights group said the Huthis had posted snipers on the roof of a hospital in the May 22 district, calling the action a “stomach-churning development”.

Nearly 10,000 Yemenis have been killed since 2015, according to the World Health Organization.

Human rights groups say the real death toll may be five times as high.

Multiple UN-sponsored efforts to broker a power-sharing agreement between the government and the rebels have all failed.

A Yemeni child suffering from severe malnutrition is weighed at a treatment centre in Yemen's northwestern Hajjah province, on November 7, 2018

A UN push to convene peace talks in Switzerland collapsed early last month as the rebels stayed away saying they had not received sufficient guarantees for their safe passage.

The United Nations is now pushing for talks in Sweden later this month.