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Yemen loyalists pursue advance after retaking air base

By AFP - Aug 05,2015 - Last updated at Aug 05,2015

ADEN — Pro-government forces pursued fleeing Shiite Houthi fighters in south Yemen Wednesday, military sources said, as they looked to press recent gains against the rebels, including retaking a key air base.

Soldiers loyal to exiled President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi wrested control Tuesday of Al Anad air base in Lahj province — one of Yemen's largest military facilities — from the Houthis, and later advanced to take provincial capital Huta.

Al Anad's recapture is a major boost for the defence of second city Aden, and paves the way for a possible return by the exiled government to the southern port, which was its last refuge before fleeing into exile in neighbouring Saudi Arabia in March.

The country's prime minister and several senior officials returned last week to begin overseeing reconstruction of the devastated city.

Military and medical sources said at least 39 rebels and 17 loyalists had been killed since Tuesday around Huta, which had been in Houthi hands since March. 

"[The situation in] Huta is under control after search operations last night and this morning," a military source said.

Rebels beat a retreat in the Wadi Al Husseini region around the road linking Al Anad and Huta, the source said, adding that Lahj’s provincial governor was expected to visit Huta later Wednesday. 

Later, however, aides said without elaborating that the governor’s return had been postponed indefinitely.

Blow to rebels 

Al Anad, 60 kilometres north of Aden, is strategically located on the main road north towards both the battleground third city of Taez and rebel-held capital Sanaa.

The vast complex housed US troops overseeing a drone war against Al Qaeda in Yemen until shortly before the rebels overran it.

Its loss is a major blow to the insurgents, whose leader Abdulmalik Al Houthi claimed just Sunday that their ouster from Aden after four months of ferocious fighting was merely a “short-term” setback that would be reversed.

Yemen has been riven by violence since the Saudi-led coalition launched air strikes against the rebels earlier this year after they and troops loyal to ousted president Ali Abdullah Saleh approached Aden after seizing Sanaa in September.

To secure Yemen’s second city, pro-government forces are seeking to retake areas in Lahj and neighbouring Abyan province in a bid to prevent a rebel riposte.

Recent days have seen fierce fighting in Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan that remains under rebel control, and in the southern town of Loder, according to residents and local officials.

A spokesman for the pro-Hadi forces said on Wednesday “the liberation of Zinjibar is now close”.

The United Nations has called repeatedly for a ceasefire in Yemen, but talks in Geneva in June collapsed without the warring parties ever sitting down in the same room.

Under coalition pressure 

The exiled government said it would only discuss the rebels’ withdrawal from all of the territory they have seized, in line with a UN Security Council resolution adopted in April.

Riad Kahwaji, head of the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, said recent gains by loyalist forces, backed by Saudi-led air strikes, had exposed Houthi weakness.

And the Houthis are now under even more pressure from the coalition after hundreds of Gulf Arab troops, mostly from the United Arab Emirates, disembarked in Aden at the weekend along with tanks and artillery.

“The continuation of the offensive exerts heavy pressure on the Houthis, yet they continue to refuse initiatives for a peaceful solution to the crisis,” he said.

However, the rebel leader has said he is open to a political solution to the conflict.

The United Nations says the war has killed nearly 4,000 people, half of them civilians, while 80 percent of the 21-million population needs aid and protection.

Nearly 100,000 Yemenis have fled abroad since late March, the UN refugee agency says.

Relief agency Doctors Without Borders warned this week that Yemen’s health services were “nearing collapse”.

The retaking of Aden by pro-government forces has allowed aid to begin to flow into southern Yemen. 

An AFP correspondent said a Saudi military plane touched down on Wednesday at the port city’s repaired international airport, carrying 25 tonnes of medical supplies.

 

And the European Union announced 12 million euros ($13.1 million) in new humanitarian aid for Yemen.

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