Troops aligned with Yemen's Southern Transitional Council recaptured a key oil-producing district in the southern province of Shabwa from Houthi rebels on Saturday, military sources said.
“Our troops drove the Houthi rebels out of Usaylan district in western Shabwa, where the Janna oilfield is located,“ a commander in the pro-STC forces told The National.
“Usaylan was fully liberated and our forces are pushing towards the districts of Bayhan and Ain amid cracks in the Houthi ranks,“ the commander said.
The capture of the district is a significant gain in the war against the Iran-backed rebels, who hold much of Yemen's north. It prevents the Houthis from controlling oil fields in Shabwa while setting the stage for military operations, supported by a Saudi-led Arab coalition, against the rebels in the neighbouring provinces of Al Bayda to the west and Marib to the north.
The commander said the rebels suffered heavy casualties in the battle for Usaylan.
“More than 57 rebels were killed in the fighting, which intensified as our troops, backed by the coalition, tightened the noose around the posts controlled by the Houthis in Araq area, Al Hatri public market and Jebel bin Aqeel, the mountain overlooking Usaylan city and the main road that links the district to Bayhan and Ain,“ he said.
Meanwhile, coalition aircraft launched strikes on Houthi forces and military equipment on Jabal bin Aqeel and on rebel vehicles travelling along the road between Usaylan and Bayhan.
A resident of Usaylan confirmed that rebel resistance was crumbling as the pro-STC forces squeezed areas the Houthis have controlled since September last year.
“Many left the area on foot,” Adeeb Al Abed told The National.
The fighting in Usaylan is part of a military campaign by the Southern Forces who arrived in Shabwa on December 29 to recapture the three northern districts.
They include four brigades of the Al Amalika militia and members of the former Shabwani Elite Forces under the command of the STC who returned to Attaq, the provincial capital, on Friday. The city was taken over in 2019 by northern tribal fighters linked to Yemen's Al Islah party when a dispute between the STC and the government – allies in the fight against the Houthis – spilt over into armed conflict.
News of the victory in Usaylan sparked joy among Shabwa residents, said Ahmed Al Hurr, a resident of Jardan district east of Usaylan.
“People took to the streets chanting for the southern forces and many celebrated the happy news with fireworks and dancing. Others took to social media to express their happiness,“ Mr Al Hurr told The National.
Experts said that the gains in Shabwa would pressure the Houthis to consider returning to peace talks and would bolster the claims of the STC, which advocates for a separate state of Southern Yemen or a greater role in the internationally recognised government.
“Such victories gained by the Southern Transitional Council will give the council much weight in the political process and will place much pressure on the Houthis to get back to the negotiation table and definitely affect how the Islah party positions [itself] politically to preserve their role,” Fernando Carvajal, a former member of the UN Security Council panel of experts on Yemen, told The National.
Gen Thabet Hussein, a military analyst in the Yemeni army, said the quick gains achieved by the STC forces in Shabwa showed how the pro-Islah militia and the Houthis were allies more than foes.
Pro-government fighters linked to Al Islah were widely criticised for ceding the three Shabwa districts to the Houthis in a single day and retreating to Attaq without a real fight.
“Such crucial military gains by the STC troops reflect the real desire and seriousness of the leadership of the Southern Transitional Council to fight the Houthi rebels alongside the Arab coalition,“ Gen Hussein said.