Yemen port: Empty streets, the sound of shelling and desperation in the air

Story highlights

  • Control of strategic seaport of Aden divided between Houthi rebels and government loyalists
  • Some Saudi arms are falling into rebel hands
  • Terrified residents line up for bread and fuel and try to stay indoors

Aden, Yemen (CNN)The streets were empty but not quiet. Shelling began to boom through the Yemeni city of Aden on Thursday afternoon as we hurried back to board the boat that had brought us here from Djibouti.

Aden is a city gripped by fear, desperation and want. People line up for bread, they line up for cooking fuel, and the electricity only works a few hours a day.
    And from late afternoon onward, most people stay indoors. That is the time of the shelling, the daily aerial bombardment.

    Hospital gives up counting the dead

    Saudi Arabia began airstrikes on Houthi rebels in Yemen three weeks ago Thursday. But Aden remains a city not fully in the hands either of Houthi rebels or forces loyal to the ousted government of President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi.
    Everyone we spoke to Thursday told us the same thing: Living in Aden these days is terrifying.
    We visited a hospital where doctors have given up trying to count the dead and the dying who are brought in. Officials said they believe the toll of the dead runs into the hundreds.
    Everywhere, we felt, saw, heard and smelled the desperation.
    We spoke to some of the loyalist military commanders. They said they felt they were pushing back the Houthi forces.
    The Houthis forced Hadi from power in January, though Hadi still claims to be Yemen's legitimate leader and is working with the Saudis and other allies to return to Yemen. Those allied with Hadi have accused the Iranian government of supporting the Houthis in their uprising in Yemen.

    Airlifted arms falling into rebel hands

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    Since Saudi Arabia began aerial raids March 26, it has launched more than 1,200 airstrikes. Saudi officials said they have killed more than 500 Houthi rebels.
    But the reality is that a good portion of the armaments the Saudis send in on guided parachutes fall instead into Houthi hands.
    There is, to be sure, a sense that three weeks into this operation, the Saudis are making some headway with the strikes.
    But given how far along they are into the operation, the expectation would have been -- especially given the aerial cover the Saudis are providing for loyalist forces on the ground -- that the Houthi forces would have been pushed further back.
    That hasn't happened.

    Control of port will be needed to resupply any ground invasion

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    The government loyalists have gained territory; that is why we were able to dock. There is an area around one of the smaller ports that is reliably in government hands.
    But Aden's main port will be hugely strategic for any potential ground incursion. Those forces will need to be reinforced and supplied through somewhere -- and the port is at the top of the list.
    Given that control of the city is still divided, there is a feeling that not enough of what the Saudis set out to do has been accomplished.
    The loyalists were frank with us. We are outgunned, they said. We are fighting a force that is superior to us in terms of its arms, tanks and artillery.
    "We're fighting them with automatic machine guns," the loyalists told us. "Those reinforcements aren't getting in to us in time."