With the help of local tribal fighters, the Yemeni military reversed losses east of the rebel-held capital of Sanna late last week and captured a strategic hill used by the Houthis to launch rockets at the town of Marib.
The gains reversed losses after the Iran-backed Houthi rebels deployed their elite shock troops to break the long deadlock in Nehim, east of Sanaa. Defence Minister General Mohammed Ali Al Maqdishi said on Friday that the rebel push had forced government troops into a “tactical withdrawal” from the area.
Ahead of the gains late on Friday night, the minister said that, "the battle to liberate Sanaa has become inevitable." Separately, the country's foreign minister warned that the Houthi push meant the government might walk away from an existing agreement aimed at building trust and averting fighting around the Red Sea city of Hodeidah.
Under the cover of airstrikes by the Saudi-led Arab Coalition, government and tribal fighters took back some lost ground as well as new areas including the strategic Haylan Mountains used by the rebels to launch rockets on government forces and the town of Marib.
Coalition planes "attacked Houthi positions more than 30 times in the last three days to reduce the pressure on the loyalists," one commander said.
Just last week, Houthi rockets killed over 100 Yemeni soldiers on the Al Estiqbal military training camp in Marib. One rocket hit a mosque during a sermon while the other hit a munitions store, triggering massive explosions. The attack came a day after the latest rounds of clashes shattered months of calm between the government and the rebels that International Crisis Group warned was “a devastating blow to current efforts to end the war".
The Houthi push has also displaced dozens of families who fled to new displacement camps.
A Yemeni pro-government military source told The National that reinforcements bolstered the offensive to retake ground.
“Flocks of tribal fighters from provinces of Marib, Shabwah and Al Bayda arrived on the eastern Sanaa front on Friday boosting the army troops that launched a large-scale offensive recapturing major sites that fell to the hands of the Houthi rebels Thursday,” he said. “The army along with the tribal fighters backed by the Arab Coalition launched a counter-attack to re-capturing the Al Jawf-Sada-Marib intersection in the expressway that links Sanaa with Marib as well as the Al Manar and Al Fardhah mountains in Nehim area east of Sanaa.”
By Friday night, government forces were engaged in a fierce fight with the Houthi rebels for the Haylan Mountains in western Marib province that lasted until daybreak on Saturday, a source in the pro-government Third Military Zone in Marib told The National.
“The army, backed by the tribes, took full control over the strategic mountain of Haylan, seizing platforms repeatedly used by the Houthi rebels to fire missiles over the city of Marib,” the source said.
The military source explained the significance of the gains, saying that the Haylan Mountains are important as the highest firing position from which the rebels can hit Marib. Now under government control, he said, the military now commands a chain of hills from the Serwah area of western Marib to the eastern areas of Sanaa that overlooks the main Houthi supply routes from the capital to the western edge of Marib province.
On Friday evening, President Abdrabu Mansur Hadi dismissed Col Hashim Al Ahamer who heads the Sixth Military Zone around Al Jawf north of Sanaa where ongoing clashes have been raging for the last several days. The president’s decision came after Col Al Ahmer failed to secure at least 80 per cent of the province that was captured by the government last year before being retaken by the rebels.
Houthi offensives risk 2018 Stockholm agreement, says minister
Separately, the Yemeni government threatened to walk away from the December 2018 Stockholm agreement because of recent Houthi offensives near Sanaa and Al Jawaf.
The agreement was meant as a first step towards a wider negotiated settlement to the conflict. It averted the government offensive to capture the Red Sea city of Hodeidah by agreeing to a cessation of hostilities for the area and a withdrawal of all forces. Although the agreement hasn’t been fully implemented, it led to a reduction in violence across the war-ravaged country through much of 2019. On January 16, UN Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths told the Security Council that the country experienced one of the quietest weeks since the war began in 2015. “With each positive step, we are brought closer to formally launching political consultations between the government of Yemen and the Houthis,” Mr Griffiths said at the time.
However, since his address, the Houthis have launched several major attacks on Yemeni government forces, including the rocket attack on the Al Estiqbal military training camp in Marib.
Foreign Minister Mohammed Al Hadrami said on Friday that the recent military escalation by Houthi rebels, while Mr Griffiths was in Sanaa, was considered to be a mischievous exploitation of the Stockholm Agreement and the truce in Hodeidah, former government-run Saba news, which is now controlled by the Houthis, quoted him as saying.
“This abnormal situation can't be continuing any longer and the recent military escalation by the Houthis puts all peace efforts at risk,” Mr Al Hadrami said. “The Yemeni people can't afford more patience in the hope of seeking for a fragile peace process that only provides Houthi militia with a chance to fuel and launch its absurd wars.”
Mr Al Hadrami added, “We won't allow the Houthi militia to take the advantage of Hodeidah agreement to fuel its battles in the fronts they choose… With this military escalation by the militia, we don't actually see any point of Hodeidah agreement".