Hodeidah is the lifeline for most of Yemen's population, who live in Houthi territory.
Coalition warplanes and warships pounded Houthi fortifications to support ground operations by Yemeni troops massed south of the country's largest port, the internationally recognised Yemeni government in exile said.
Iranian-aligned Shia rebels known as Houthis and their allies for years have held the Red Sea port, crucial to food supplies in a nation on the brink of starvation after years of war. Some 70 percent of Yemen's food enters the country via the port, as well as the bulk of humanitarian aid and fuel supplies.
"If the Houthis don't get out of Hodeidah city and the port, the UAE will start a military operation against the rebels in Hodeidah", Gargash was quoted as saying by the French daily.
"We have had more than 30 airstrikes within 30 minutes this morning around the city. Some civilians are entrapped, others forced from their homes", said Jolien Veldwijk, the acting country director of the aid group CARE International, which works in Hudaida.
"Under global humanitarian law, parties to the conflict have to do everything possible to protect civilians and ensure they have access to the assistance they need to survive", said Lise Grande, the UN's humanitarian coordinator for Yemen.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres had said that U.N. envoy Martin Griffiths was in "intense negotiations" in an attempt to avoid a military confrontation.
Speaking to reporters this week, Mattis said that USA support would continue at its current levels, and suggested US aerial refueling, which lengthens flight times, increased the accuracy of Saudi and UAE bombing raids and so cut down on civilian casualties. Already, Yemeni security officials said some were fleeing the fighting. The Arab states say they will try to keep the port running and can ease the crisis once they seize it by lifting import restrictions they have imposed.
Western countries, particularly Britain and the USA, have backed the Arab states diplomacy but have so far mostly avoided direct public involvement in the Yemen conflict. A major battle could test that support, especially if many civilians are killed or supplies disrupted.
And just to the north is the Ras Isa oil terminal - which served the Marib oilfields and was the country's main export terminal - and the nearby port of Saleef. Aid agencies urged President Emmanuel Macron to cancel a planned Paris conference on Yemen co-chaired with Saudi Arabia.
A man carries the body of a child recovered from the site of a Saudi-led air strike in Sanaa Yemen
The assault began after the expiry of a deadline set by the United Arab Emirates for the Houthis, who hold the capital Sanaa, to hand over the sole port under their control.
"The liberation of the province of Hodeidah from the grip of the. militias, will be the beginning of the complete victory for the liberation of all the Yemeni lands", Yemen's government in exile said in a statement.
A Yemeni anti-Houthi military official said the alliance had brought to bear a 21,000-strong force.
Yemeni forces massing around Al Hudaydah are a mix of local fighters, those loyal to President Hadi, and supporters of the ex-head of state, Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Houthi-run Al Mariah TV said two missiles had struck the barge, but there has so far been no immediate confirmation from the coalition.
Saudi Arabia's Western allies, which sell arms to coalition states, have not said publicly if they approve of the assault.
The Houthis, with roots in a Zaidi Shi'ite minority that ruled a thousand-year kingdom in Yemen until 1962, deny they are pawns of Iran.
It noted that pro-government forces took months to consolidate control over the small coastal town of Mocha a year ago, and that the Houthis were entrenched in Hudaydah and likely to try to hold on to the city for as long as possible.
The war has also pushed Yemen into near starvation.
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