Yemen loyalists pursue advance after retaking airbase

Map of Yemen-yalibnan

Map of Yemen-yalibnan

Pro-government forces pursued fleeing Shiite Huthi fighters in south Yemen Wednesday, military sources said, as they looked to press recent gains against the rebels, including the retaking of a key airbase.

Soldiers loyal to exiled President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi wrested control Tuesday of Al-Anad airbase in Lahj province — one of Yemen’s largest military facilities — from the Huthis, and later advanced to take provincial capital Huta.

The recapture of Al-Anad 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 it fled into exile in neighbouring Saudi Arabia in March.

Military and medical sources said that at least 39 rebels and 17 loyalist fighters had been killed since Tuesday around Huta, which had been in Huthi hands since March.

“(The situation in) Huta is under control after search operations last night and this morning,” a military source said.

Rebel fighters 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 on Wednesday.

Al-Anad, 60 kilometres (40 miles) 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-Huthi 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 a Saudi-led coalition launched air strikes against Huthi 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 Wednesday however that “the liberation of Zinjibar is now close”.

– Fresh medical aid –

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.

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 Huthi weakness.

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

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

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