Yemen conflict escalates, government forces advance in south
CAIRO (AP) — Forces of Yemen’s internationally recognized government have reclaimed large swaths of territory in a southern province from Iran-backed Houthi rebels, government officials said Wednesday.
The push in the southern province of Shabwa comes amid heavy airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition battling the Houthis elsewhere in Yemen, including the capital of Sanaa. The rebels have also stepped up their cross-border attacks, using ballistic missiles and explosive-laden drones to target Saudi Arabia.
The Houthis recently also seized an Emirati ship in the Red Sea off the contested city of Hodeida.
A Yemeni military spokesman, Mohammed al-Naqib, said the troops’ advance in Shabwa aims to cut supply lines for the Houthis who have been attacking the key city of Marib, the last government stronghold in northern Yemen, since early last year.
Yemen’s civil war began in 2014 when the Houthis took Sanaa and much of the northern part of the country, forcing the government to flee to the south, then to Saudi Arabia. The Saudi-led coalition, backed at the time by the U.S., entered the war months later to try restoring the government to power.
The conflict has since become a regional proxy war that has killed tens of thousands of civilians and fighters. The war also created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, leaving millions suffering from food and medical care shortages and pushing the country to the brink of famine.
Government troops, aided by allied Giants Bridges, swept through Shabwa earlier this month, retaking most of the Usailan district from the Houthis. Al-Naqib said they also pushed through the nearby Bayhan district, retaking several villages.
A spokesman for the rebels did not answer phone calls seeking comment. A Houthi media office said the Saudi-led coalition launched dozens of airstrikes on the rebels in Usailan and Bayhan.
Fighting has also escalated since November around the city of Hodeida, in a setback to the U.N.-brokered cease-fire in 2018 that ended fighting over the strategic port.
The Saudi-led coalition on Tuesday called for the Houthis to release the Emirati ship Rwabee, warning that it would attack ports used by the rebels to seize the vessel, a move that would likely further undermine the cease-fire in Hodeida.
U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the United Nations was following “with concern” reports of the vessel’s seizure “in what the Houthis have described as Yemeni waters.”
The rebels, meanwhile, accused the Saudi-led coalition Wednesday of preventing a fuel vessel from entering Hodeida despite receiving U.N. clearances.
Essam al-Mutawakel, spokesman for rebel-run Yemen Petroleum Company, said the coalition diverted Splendour Sapphire to the Saudi city of Jizan. He said the ship carries 24,189 tons of mazut, a low quality fuel oil.
There was no immediate comment from the coalition.
Associated Press writer Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.