Yemen forces tighten siege on Marib
The third day of a campaign to liberate Yemen's capital saw the pro-government forces tighten their siege of the rebel-held Sirwah district of Marib province, and advance in some areas to within 40 kilometres of Sanaa province, military officers said.
With the rebels pinned down in Sirwah, which lies west of the capital, coalition war planes repelled attempts by the Houthis to bring in reinforcements through Marib's south-eastern border with Shabwa province, which they still control.
The loyalist ground forces, comprising Yemeni troops and tribal fighters and coalition troops mainly from the UAE and Saudi Arabia, have established control in the east and west of Marib province, while coalition warplanes are patrolling the north, where UAE engineers are leading operations to clear thousands of mines laid by the rebels.
Yemeni Brigadier General Murad Turaiq said pro-government fighters had cleared mines and captured areas around Sirwah and Hareeb including Hailan mountain and the areas of Al Ateef, Al Makhdarah, and Al Masaryah hill.
Brig Gen Turaiq, who heads the Yemeni military in Marib and Bayda provinces, said his forces will soon reach Sanaa.
Supported by coalition air cover and ground forces, loyalist fighters captured two more strategic hills in Sirwah, another Yemeni officer said.
"We have pushed the Houthis out of these two hills and entered Al Zor", a rebel position near Sirwah, said Captain Zaid Al Qaisi of the Marib-based 14th Brigade.
"Coalition ground forces, mainly from the United Arab Emirates and also Saudi Arabia, are participating in the offensive," he said, adding that they had been clearing mines planted by the rebels.
Brig Gen Turaiq said fighting with the Houthis had intensified.
"The Houthis know that this is the war for Sanaa, and if Marib is freed of the rebels the resistance will reach Sanaa in days," Brig Gen Turaiq said.
He said 19 Houthis and three Yemeni troops were killed in the fighting on Tuesday in Marib.
Clashes also raged near the Marib Dam south-west of Marib city, the provincial capital.
Mohammed Bohaibeh, a pro-Hadi fighter in Marib province, said the rebels were gathering near the dam, indicating that Sirwah and the areas around it is their last stronghold in Marib province.
Marib city is now controlled by troops and tribes loyal to Yemeni president Abdrabu Mansur Hadi, but parts of the oil-rich province are still in the hands of the rebels.
The Saudi-led coalition is now in the final stages of a campaign launched to restore Mr Hadi's internationally recognised government to power. Mr Hadi was driven into exile in Saudi Arabia in late March when the Iran-backed Houthi rebels advanced on the southern port city of Aden.
Mr Hadi had tried to establish his government there after fleeing Sanaa, which was overrun by the rebels last September.
The coalition began with air strikes against the rebels and allied forces in renegade units of the Yemeni military still loyal to the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who stepped down in 2011 after protests against his decades-long rule.
The campaign, in which Saudi Arabia and the UAE have played leading roles, was expanded to arm and train Yemeni fighters in those countries, as well as supply weapons to loyalist fighters defending Aden from a Houthi onslaught.
Pro-Hadi fighters, backed by troops trained and armed by Saudi Arabia, pushed the rebels out of Aden in July and have since recaptured four other southern provinces.
The United Nations says nearly 4,900 people have been killed and about 25,000 wounded since late March, while 21 million out of Yemen's population of 25 million have been affected by the conflict.
The campaign in Marib follows a build-up of coalition forces in the province over several months. The province saw the heaviest coalition casualties of the campaign so far when a rebel missile hit a camp near Safer on September 4, killing 52 Emirati servicemen, 10 Saudis and five Bahrainis. Two more Emirati soldiers have died since the Marib offensive was launched on Sunday.
The losses have inspired the UAE forces now fighting in Marib, their commander said on Monday.
"We won't forget our blood," Brig Gen Ali Al Kaabi said. "This is a personal thing for the soldiers."
* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse