Houthi fighters in the Yemeni city of Hodeidah are preparing to wage guerrilla attacks on forces backed by the Arab coalition, a government official told The National.
A number of new tactics, including using female disguises in order to ambush vehicles, are being employed by the Iran-backed rebels to thwart the Yemeni troops in their advance towards the port city of 400,000 with support from the UAE Armed Forces.
"The Houthis have been storing weapons and ammunition in the mosques and [have] deployed tens of their snipers on top of buildings along the streets which lead to the harbours and the airport," said the Secretary of Hodeidah district Waleed Al Qadimi.
"They have been working day and night digging new trenches and fortifications in the farms located near the city and along the wall of the airport," Mr Al Qadimi said. They rebels have also "planted landmines in the openings of the streets and the routes around the airport and inside it".
Dozens of Houthi fighters from the all-female Al Zainabiyat unit have reportedly been trying to convince Hodeidah residents to take up arms against the advancing troops. The female militias, said Mr Al Qadimi, are inciting an uprising by referring to coalition-backed troops as "mercenaries".
"Hundreds of new Houthi fighters arrived in Hodeidah from the northern provinces," said Mr Al Qadimi, adding that they had been using civilians as human shields.
The fall of Hodeidah would cut off the Houthis' main supply line to rebel-held areas of northern Yemen, including the capital, Sanaa.
As Yemeni and coalition forces drew closer to the city, UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Dr Anwar Gargash said on Thursday that victory over the Houthis in Yemen was “close”. He praised the efforts of the Saudi-led alliance, which intervened in Yemen's war in March 2015 on behalf of President Abdrabu Mansur Hadi's internationally recognised government.
“We are following the progress towards Al Hodeidah, and we have the right to be proud of the UAE army, its officers, its soldiers, its professionalism, its courage and its honour that have made them a key partner in the Arab coalition that is led by Riyadh to crush the Houthi rebellion,” Dr Gargash tweeted.
As forces of the Saudi-led military coalition reached the outskirts of the city, international UN staff members in charge of the area's humanitarian relief were evacuated, said Mr Al Qadimi.
Yemen traditionally imports 90 per cent of its food, mainly through Hodeidah where UN inspectors check ships to ensure they do not carry weapons.
"It remains a lifeline for the highlands where close to 70 per cent of Yemenis live. It's about the need to have commercial imports," said Robert Mardini, Middle East regional director for the International Committee of the Red Cross. "It's a densely-populated area where any military scenario will risk coming at a huge human cost," he added.
Dozens of Iranian advisers were also evacuated from the city last week.
Diplomatic efforts to end the war have failed so far, but a new peace proposal is to be unveiled this month by the UN envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, who travelled to Sanaa on Saturday.
Meanwhile the UAE state agency WAM reported that 36 Houthis had been killed in clashes with Yemeni troops on different fronts along the Red Sea coast.
The troops were clearing pockets of rebel resistance in the liberated areas of Taif, Al Husayniyah and Tahita, where they also removed mines planted by the rebels.
On Friday night pro-government forces repelled a Houthi attack on Yemeni troops outposts in Al Faza, south of Hodeidah. Further south, populated villages in the Hays area were also reportedly shelled by Houthi fighters, a military source told The National.
In the north at least 18 Houthi fighters were killed on Friday in clashes with the Yemeni army.