SANAA, Yemen — Fierce fighting raged Tuesday outside the airport of the crucial Yemeni city of Hodeida as thousands of pro-government fighters backed by a Saudi-led coalition battled Iranian-allied Shiite rebels for control of the Red Sea port — the main passageway for food and aid supplies in a country teetering on the brink of famine.
Coalition officials, meanwhile, displayed weapons captured on the battlefield that they said show Iran is now arming the insurgents, known as Houthis, something Iran has long denied despite reports by the United Nations and Western countries linking it to the rebels' arsenal.
The weapons, shown to reporters during a government-sponsored tour in the United Arab Emirates' capital of Abu Dhabi and at an Emirati military base, included drones, a sniper rifle, roadside bombs disguised as rocks and a "drone boat," which had been filled with explosives that failed to detonate.
Emirati officials said they included Iranian-labeled components inside equipment used to produce and load fuel for rockets the rebels have fired across the border at Saudi Arabia.
"We can say that these elements are military-grade materials imported from Iran to the Houthi militias," Talal al-Teneiji, an Emirati Foreign Affairs Ministry official, told The Associated Press. Iran's mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The rare display came as the UAE-backed Amaleqa brigades, supported by airstrikes and naval shelling from the Saudi-led coalition, tried to storm the southern and western parts of the Hodeida airport. They faced fierce resistance from rebel snipers and land mines encircling the airport.
"It is a vast, open area and the Houthis have covered the ground with land mines to prevent the forces' advancements," one Yemeni military official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media. "It's back and forth battles."
Still, the official said it was a matter of hours before the forces would take full control of the airport.
The Amaleqa brigades have captured dozens of rebel fighters, including minors, in the airport fighting, the official said. Combat has been raging at the southern runway less than a mile (one kilometer) from the main airport compound.
Witnesses said coalition warships and warplanes have been hitting the airport and the eastern side of Hodeida around the clock since late Monday, aiming to cut off the main road that links Hodeida and the rebel-held capital, Sanaa.
Government forces have been trying for days to capture the Kilo 16 road to trap the Houthi rebels inside Hodeida and the western coast, and block supplies from coming in from Sanaa.
The fighting has forced dozens of families to flee their homes in the area around the Kilo 16 road toward the countryside, witnesses said. They said the rebels have fortified the area in preparation for a likely coming battle against government forces.
A senior Houthi official, Mohammed al-Bukaiti, confirmed the fierce fighting at the Hodeida airport. "Battles are raging south of the airport under unprecedented air cover," he wrote on Facebook.
More than 40 airstrikes from the Saudi-led coalition hit the airport since Tuesday morning, Houthi officials said. Witnesses reported fire and thick smoke rising over the airport.
Also on Tuesday, the Saudi-led coalition bombed a bus carrying civilians, killing six people on the outskirts of Hodeida, said a senior Houthi-linked health official, Yahia Sharif Eddin. He said four of the dead were women.
Witnesses, however, said that the coalition was targeting Houthi fighters when shrapnel hit the bus carrying the civilians.
Earlier in the day, witnesses said another airstrike targeted a tractor driver and another man in eastern Hodeida who were digging trenches for the Houthi fighters. Both were killed.
Meanwhile, the United Nations special envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, left Sanaa after three days of talks with rebel leaders. He briefed the U.N. Security Council on Monday by video from the Yemeni capital on his proposals to restart political negotiations to end the three-year conflict.
The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said the heavy fighting poses a danger to the warehouses used for humanitarian aid in the port city.
In its daily report, the U.N. agency said fighting has engulfed several districts outside of Hodeida, prompting relief agencies to relocate stocks away from the battles, which has made some aid warehouses inaccessible.
The U.N. said on Monday that over 5,200 families have fled the fighting since June 1.
The Saudi-led coalition launched the campaign to retake Hodeida last Wednesday, with Emirati troops leading the force of government soldiers and irregular militia fighters backing Yemen's exiled government. Saudi Arabia has provided air support, with targeting guidance and refueling from the U.S.
The campaign to seize control of Hodeida threatens to worsen Yemen's humanitarian situation.
The offensive has faced criticism from international aid groups, who fear a protracted fight could force a shutdown of the 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 at risk of starving.
The Houthis seized control of Sanaa in September 2014, later pushing south toward the port city of Aden. The Saudi-led coalition entered the conflict in March 2015 and has faced criticism for a campaign of airstrikes that has killed civilians and destroyed hospitals and markets.
The Houthis, meanwhile, have laid land mines, killing and wounding civilians, targeted religious minorities and imprisoned opponents.