Yemeni army prepares to strike back after rebel gains in north

More troops and weapons sent to Jawf and Marib as government plans response

FILE PHOTO: Major General Muhammad Ali al-Maqdashi, chief of staff of the Yemeni Army, addresses a news conference in the country's central province of Marib, Yemen January 13, 2016. REUTERS/Ali Owidha/File Photo

Yemeni government troops have fortified their remaining positions in the northern province of Jawf and around the city of Marib ahead of a major offensive against the Iran-backed Houthis, local military commanders and officials said on Thursday.

Spokesman Brigadier General Abdu Abdullah Majili said the army was reviewing its military plans after recent setbacks and would not allow the Houthis to make further gains. "The national army is determined to liberate Jawf and other provinces under Houthi militia control. What I can say at the moment is the coming days are decisive," Brig Gen Majili told The National.

He said the Houthis were committing “horrific” abuses in Jawf.

Yemen army suffered major setbacks over the past two weeks as Houthis seized control of Hazem, the capital of Jawf, and swathes of Nehim district, just outside the rebel-held capital Sanaa. By seizing control of Hazem and Nehim, Houthis have effectively driven government forces from their closest point to Sanaa and surrounded Marib, the capital of the province of the same name that hosts several military bases of the government and the Saudi-led coalition.

Soldiers at the Labenat base in Jawf, the last major military site under government control in the province, told The National that the army sent forces and military equipment to fortify the base ahead of major offensive on Hazem.

“I can see big movements of forces inside the base. The army has formed a joint command room. Our morale is high and ready for any offensive,” said a soldier who asked not to be identified.

The reinforcements came as Defence Minister Mohammed Al Maqdashi and senior army commanders visited flashpoints in Jawf on Thursday. Mr Al Maqdashi ordered the soldiers to be on heightened alert to repel Houthi incursions and to carry out orders to liberate new areas.

The defence ministry's news website quoted the minister as saying the army was determined to continue military operations until the Houthis were expelled from Sanaa, Saada province and other areas under their control.

Official media said army commanders have held meetings in Marib over the past two days to review military plans as several cabinet ministers arrived in the city to show support for troops ahead of their offensive.

Following setbacks in Nehim last month, Yemeni President Abdrabu Mansur Hadi appointed Gen Sagher bin Aziz, who is from Saada, the Houthi heartland, as the army’s new chief of staff. Mr Hadi also dismissed the commander of the 7th Military Region who was in charge of the Nehim battlefield.

Political analysts say the Houthi gains in Jawf paved the way for the rebels to seize major oil and gas fields in neighbouring Marib province.

“By taking the capital[ of Jawf], Houthi forces have cleared away the last obstacle in front of the vast, largely empty desert areas across the north of Marib. The Houthi movement, therefore, gains an easy military path to the vein of Marib’s wealth – its oil wells and a refinery – without having to capture Marib city, the governorate’s well-fortified capital,” said Maged Al Madhaji, the executive director of the Sanaa Centre for Strategic Studies.

Mr Al Madhaji noted that if the Houthis stormed Marib, they could push east and south into other provinces. “From there, Houthi forces could in theory advance on toward Shabwa in the south and Hadramawt in the east, but this would require securing all of Marib.”

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