Yemen’s internationally recognised government is fighting an “existential” battle against the Houthi rebels in Marib and will not lose its last stronghold in the north of the country, a senior Yemeni official vowed on Friday.
Abdullah Al Alimi, chief of staff for President Abdrabu Mansur Hadi’s Saudi-Arabia-based government, said a Houthi victory over Marib would see Yemen descend into an Iranian-style theocracy.
“This is not a battle that we can lose,” Mr Al Alimi told a small group of reporters at an online briefing.
“For Yemenis, Marib is an existential part of life for them, for their children and for their future. It is the final battle between freedom, the republic and democracy and this religious theocracy that the Houthis are trying to implement.”
The UN’s envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, said this week that the latest round of talks on enacting a ceasefire in Marib and other hotspots in Yemen had stalled, killing hopes of a breakthrough after US President Joe Biden's administration made ending the war a priority.
In a statement on Friday, US Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking bashed the Houthis for their ongoing assault on Marib and for refusing to meet Mr Griffiths to discuss the ceasefire.
“There is a fair deal on the table that will bring immediate relief to the Yemeni people,” the US State Department said.
“Contradictory to their pronouncements regarding the humanitarian situation in Yemen, the Houthis worsen it by continuing to attack Marib and exacerbating dire conditions for already vulnerable, internally displaced Yemenis.”
Supported and armed by Iran, the Houthis launched an assault on Marib in February and are now within a few kilometres of the government-held city, the site of the only oil refinery in the north and a gateway to nearby oilfields.
Mr Al Alimi said there had been “thousands of martyrs” in the battle, but that no expense would be spared in arming national forces and militias to defend the city. The Houthis have also suffered “strategic losses” in their campaign.
The rebel assault through the province, also called Marib, has displaced some 20,000 people and worsened the country’s humanitarian crisis, the UN says.
“If Marib falls, millions of people will become [internally displaced persons] and the military battle will turn from one in trying to restore the state into one between various armed groups,” said Mr Al Alimi.
He countered suggestions that Mr Hadi, who is living in exile in Saudi Arabia, was ill or disconnected from running Yemen, which is largely controlled by Houthis in the north and a secessionist-leaning movement in the south.
Mr Hadi’s government will return to operating from the southern city of Aden soon, Mr Al Alimi added at a briefing hosted by the Sanaa Centre For Strategic Studies, a think tank.
Yemen’s six year-long conflict was sparked when the Houthis ousted the country’s government from the capital, Sanaa, in 2014, saying they were fighting a corrupt system and foreign meddling.
A Saudi Arabia-led military coalition intervened the following year with an air bombing campaign to beat back the rebels.
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said on Thursday that Yemen's humanitarian situation was "falling off a cliff", with 16 million people going hungry and a $2.5 billion hole in the global aid budget.
Two thirds of Yemenis needed aid in a nation on the brink of famine and ravaged by Covid-19, said Mr Dujarric. Donors have only paid about a third of the $3.85 billion needed this year to manage the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, he added.
Mr Griffiths said this week that the latest round of talks on enacting a ceasefire in the country had stalled, killing hopes of a breakthrough.