ADEN // Yemen’s popular resistance, backed by the Saudi-led coalition, repelled attempts by Houthi rebels to take control of the strategic Al Wazeya district in Taez province on Thursday.
The stand came as relentless rebel shelling of the provincial capital pushed the death toll past 80.
Forces loyal to the government reported at least 20 rebel fighters killed in heavy clashes in Taez city on Thursday.
The Houthis started their bombardment of the city on Wednesday morning, indiscriminately firing on civilian homes. The shells were aimed at houses in Jamal Street, Al Modhafar, Al Roudha, 26 September Street, Houdh Al Ashraf, Al Dhaboa’a, Bab Mousa, and A-Tahreer Street.
All the casualties in these areas were civilians, because the Houthis "want to plant fear in the hearts of the civilians in Taez", said Moa'ath Al Yaseri, a senior figure in the popular resistance in Taez.
Mr Al Yaseri said Katyusha rockets fired by the Houthis left “more than 80 [civilians] killed and dozens of others injured” in the two days of fighting.
On Thursday, the popular resistance repulsed several Houthi attempts to seize Al Wazeya district, a focal point of the battle in Taez province.
The district is of key importance to the coalition because it connects Taez to the government-controlled provinces of Lahj and Aden, and will be the main route for the resistance to send military reinforcements to the coastal area of Dhubab, also controlled by pro-government forces.
A day earlier, the resistance liberated some rebel-held areas and public institutions in Taez city, such as the headquarters of the political security, and handed them to the military council that represents the Yemeni army in the province.
Mr Al Yaseri said the Houthis unleashed a barrage of shells at Taez city on Wednesday, when the resistance advanced towards rebel-held areas there.
The shelling set homes on fire, he said, which residents extinguished themselves.
“There are no fire engines in Taez city so the residents tried to put out the fires by bringing water containers in their cars.”
Dozens were killed and others injured in the Al Roudha district when another Houthi missile struck as residents were trying to put out a fire in one of the houses, Mr Al Yaseri said.
Previous Houthi shelling of Taez city had forced many residents to flee to rural areas.
Raed Al Sharabi, a resident of Al Roudha, said that since Wednesday the people in Taez city had been hiding in the basements of their homes.
“I live in a house with four floors, and when there is shelling, all of us – about five families – stay in the basement.”
Even so, he said, the sounds of the exploding missiles terrified the children.
The Red Cross said on Thursday that the intensifying fighting in Taez had plunged the city into a desperate situation, with closed hospitals and acute shortages of medicines, food, water and fuel.
“The situation in Taez is particularly dire ... with nearly half of the hospitals closed and streams of wounded people desperate for treatment,” the head of the ICRC delegation in Yemen, Antoine Grand, said in a statement.
The Red Cross put the toll from Houthi shelling on Wednesday at 22 dead and more than 140 injured.
Yemeni president Abdrabu Mansur Hadi phoned the resistance and military leaders in Taez to offer condolences over the civilian casualties after Wednesday’s bombardment.
Mr Hadi spoke to Hamoud Saeed Al Mikhlafi of the popular resistance and Brig Gen Adnan Al Hamadi, commander of the 35th Armoured Brigade, the state news agency Wam reported.
The president called on the army and resistance forces to stand strong in their fight, stressing that their victory was inevitable.
Mr Hadi reiterated his support to all resistance fronts in Taez province and the rest of Yemen’s governorates and emphasised the importance of solidarity in the face of the Houthi rebels and allied forces loyal to the ousted president, Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Meanwhile, the nearly 1,000 Sudanese troops who arrived in Yemen last week as part of the Saudi-led regional coalition have been deployed in its operations across the country, according to their commander.
* With additional reporting from Wam, Reuters and Agence France-Presse