Gulf coalition eyes Yemeni capital
LONDON - The Saudi-led anti-Houthi coalition in Yemen is carrying out air strikes against targets in and around Sana’a in coordination with pro-government loyalists who are preparing to march on the capital.
This is part of a major offensive launched on September 14th to retake Sana’a following gains in southern Yemen, including capturing the strategic port city of Aden in July.
The legitimate government of Yemen returned to Aden from exile in Saudi Arabia on September 16th. Vice-President Khaled Bahah was among seven officials reaching Aden, joining ministers who had returned earlier in what represents a strong indication of the Gulf coalition’s confidence of its control in southern Yemen. Yemeni President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi returned to the city on September 22nd after nearly six months in exile.
“The security file, reconstruction and incorporating the southern resistance into the army,” top the government’s agenda, Bahah said in his first news conference from Aden, according to the local Al-Ghad news website.
“There will not be any negotiation [with the Houthis] before the government reclaims the country,” he said.
The Saudi-led Gulf coalition, backed by Hadi loyalists, has pushed north from Aden, into central Marib province.
In what amounted to a rare update on fighting in Marib, which has been described as the Houthis’ last line of defence before Sana’a, a coalition source told Agence France-Presse “things are going slowly but surely”.
“The battle to restore Marib is a vital operation because it will be the beginning of a quick end [to the Houthis control],” the source said.
Brigadier-General Ali Saif al- Kaabi, commander of the Emirati contingent in the Gulf coalition, announced on September 15th that Marib’s provincial capital had been secured and that the rebels had fled to the mountains.
“If you want to go to Sana’a, you need to get to Marib, it’s the last line,” Kaabi said.
As they flee towards Sana’a, Houthi fighters are deploying land mines and booby-traps to slow the coalition advance. The Gulf coalition has faced some criticism for its inability to retake the governorate faster, including media reports of poor coordination between coalition partners.
While clashes are ongoing in the central province, the coalition has the advantage. Analysts have highlighted the strategic importance of controlling Marib for the battles to come.
About 80% of the oil-rich central province’s population are Sunnis and only one of Marib’s five main tribes has indicated support for the Houthis.
If the Gulf coalition is able to seize control of the governorate, it will be a vital staging point for an eventual push on Sana’a.
Reinforcements, including 20 armoured vehicles, three tanks and two artillery units, are arriving in the province, according to local reports.
With the recent advances on the ground, morale is high among the Gulf coalition troops, despite the loss of 45 Emirati, ten Saudi and five Bahraini soldiers when a missile hit an arms depot in Marib city on September 4th.
“We won’t forget our blood. This [offensive] is a personal thing for the soldiers,” Kaabi said.
In what could be a setback for the coalition, however, Houthis claim to have captured at least one Saudi soldier. A Houthi-affiliated TV station showed unverified footage of a man dressed in military fatigues who identified himself as Sergeant Ibrahim Hakmi of a Saudi brigade based in the Jizan border area. The man said he was being held with several other Saudi soldiers but did not say how many, nor how they were captured.
Riyadh has not commented on the claim. The Saudi-led coalition has been carrying out air strikes against Houthi targets in Sana’a ahead of the expected offensive.
September 19th marked one of the heaviest days of strikes on the capital, including targeting of the Interior Ministry, the presidential complex and a party building of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Local and international media reported civilian casualties in the air strikes, which also hit the home of Oman’s ambassador in Sana’a.