Fighting rages in Taez province amid major offensive to drive out 30,000 rebels

Pro-government Yemeni soldiers and resistance fighters are attacking the Houthis on all fronts across the province to prevent them from sending all of their fighters to uphold the siege on Taez city.

Resistance fighters loyal to Yemeni president Abdrabu Mansur Hadi hold a position on the outskirts of Taez city on January 26, 2016. Ahmad Al Basha/AFP
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ADEN // Fighting raged across Taez province on Friday, a day after Yemeni pro-government soldiers and resistance fighters launched a major offensive to drive out tens of thousands of Houthi rebels and allied fighters.

Resistance leader Hamoud Al Mikhlafi, who is leading the offensive, told The National that the first aim of the campaign was to break the rebels' siege on parts of Taez city, the provincial capital.

“I call on [pro-government fighters] to target the Houthis fiercely on all fronts in the province” to prevent the rebels from sending all of their fighters to uphold the siege on Taez city, he said.

Parts of Taez city have been under siege from the Houthis for more than nine months. The rebels and their allied fighters – renegade soldiers who are loyal to former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh – have blocked food and medical supplies from entering besieged areas via official roads. Residents have been forced to smuggle in basic goods over the mountains.

Mr Al Mikhlafi said he had met with prime minister Khalid Bahah on Thursday, as the offensive to retake Taez province was launched.

“I met Bahah yesterday, and we discussed the plan of breaking the siege on Taez city, which will be implemented soon,” he said, speaking from the provincial capital.

This plan involves breaking the siege from one entrance point to the city, he said, declining to provide further details for security reasons.

Mr Al Mikhlafi said pro-government forces taking part in the Taez offensive numbered between 10,000 and 15,000 in addition to hundreds of fighters who only graduated from training at Al Anad airbase in Lahj province on Thursday.

Al Anad airbase in being used by Saudi-led coalition commanders to train Yemeni army recruits. The coalition of mainly Arab states, including the UAE, has been fighting in Yemen since last March, with the aim of restoring to power the internationally recognised government of president Abdrabu Mansur Hadi.

Pro-government ground forces are being backed by coalition air strikes.

Houthi rebels and allied fighters in Taez province currently number more than 30,000, Mr Al Mikhlafi said. Thousands have arrived from other provinces in recent months as reinforcement.

"The importance of the [Taez] battle makes the Houthi and the Ali Saleh coalition devote all its weight there to avoid defeat, as it is aware that it will be the final leg of a complete defeat, so it is pushing for more troops [to fight]," Yemeni deputy prime minister and foreign minister Abdel Malak Al Mekhlafi told the Saudi-owned Al Hayat newspaper, which is based in London.

In remarks published on Friday he said the Yemeni army had come a long way in rebuilding itself following the defections from pro-Saeh soldiers now allied with the Houthis.

“The resistance is fighting bravely, but it is necessary that there should be an organised national army that frees Taez, and the practical steps to achieve this goal have begun,” he said.

“Resistance will continue, and the state found itself in a situation that requires the rebuilding of a national army. We have come a long way in this area, and we hope that Taez will be liberated soon.”

Meanwhile, the Saudi interior ministry said on Friday that a Saudi soldier had been killed a day before in cross-border shelling from Yemen.

Khalid bin Mohammed Shebeli was killed when shells and gunfire hit a Saudi border post in Al Harth sector in the southwestern border area of Jizan, state news agency Spa reported the ministry as saying.