SANAA, Yemen — The U.N. spokesman said Monday that tens of thousands of residents have fled the fighting along Yemen's western coastline where Yemeni fighters backed by a Saudi-led coalition are engaged in fierce battles with Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.
Stephane Dujarric, the spokesman for the U.N. Secretary-General, told reporters that about 5,200 families, or around 26,000 people, have fled the fighting and sought safety within their own districts or in other areas in Hodeida governorate.
"The number is expected to increase as hostilities continue," he said.
The U.N. Security Council again reiterated its call for the rebel-held ports of Hodeida and Salif "to be kept open and operating safely" in a press statement issued after closed door briefings by U.N. Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths and U.N. humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock.
Russia's deputy U.N. ambassador, Dmitry Polyansky, whose country holds the rotating Security Council presidency this month, told reporters that Griffiths confirmed the ports continue to operate.
Emirati troops, along with irregular and loyalist forces in Yemen, have been fighting against Houthis for Hodeida since Wednesday. Coalition warplanes rained missiles and bombs on Houthi positions near Hodeida airport, in the city's south.
The campaign to seize control of Hodeida threatens to worsen Yemen's humanitarian situation, as Hodeida's port is the country's main entry point for most humanitarian aid.
"The situation is very disturbing," Polyansky said. "We all hope that nothing terrible will happen further in Hodeida. That is our shared analysis of the situation."
The offensive for Hodeida has faced criticism from international aid groups, who fear a protracted fight could force a shutdown of the city's port and potentially tip millions into starvation. Some 70 percent of Yemen's food enters via the port, as well as the bulk of humanitarian aid and fuel supplies. Around two-thirds of the country's population of 27 million relies on aid and 8.4 million are already at risk of starving.
Griffiths, the U.N. envoy, arrived in Yemen on Saturday to try to avoid an all-out assault in Hodeida. He briefed the Security Council by video from Sanaa on his proposals to restart political negotiations to end the three-year conflict in Yemen.
The statement from Security Council members said they welcomed his briefing on the proposals, "reaffirmed their full support for his efforts and underlined that a political solution remained the only way to end the conflict in Yemen."
Polyansky said it was very difficult to talk about a timeframe for the political proposals.
"The political moves that are being proposed are being supported by us ... but the situation is now very volatile," he said. "We hope that he will succeed. ... but let's wait some time and see what will come of it."