Aden // UAE-trained troops deployed in the Yemeni city of Belhaf on Saturday to help secure the strategic port from Al Qaeda extremists.
The city, in Shabwa province, is on Yemen’s southern coast between Aden, the country’s temporary capital, and Mukalla, a port liberated from Al Qaeda earlier this year.
But Shabwa continues to be Al Qaeda’s stronghold in Yemen, particularly the Azzan area, just 100 kilometres inland from Belhaf.
The Yemeni troops, members of local popular resistance committees, underwent about two months of training by UAE forces in Hadramawt province to help them form part of Yemen’s national army. The Emirati troops are part of the Saudi-led Arab coalition fighting to restore the Yemeni government to power after Iran-backed Houthi rebels seized the capital Sanaa in 2014.
But the coalition has also had to battle extremist groups like Al Qaeda to stop them from taking advantage of the conflict by seizing territory in the south.
The first batch of UAE-trained troops arrived back in Belhaf on Saturday, equipped with armoured vehicles, to help ensure the port remains secure, said Shabwa province spokesman Salem Al Sael.
“The Yemeni government merged the members of the popular committees into the Yemeni army, and today some of those members returned to Belhaf port as military forces,” Mr Al Sael told The National.
Mr Al Sael said the rest of the fighters from the popular resistance committees, which formed in 2011 to defend towns and cities from Al Qaeda, will also be trained by the UAE and assimilated into the Yemeni army.
“We thank the coalition forces for training the popular committees of Belhaf port, and we hope they can train the members of popular committees of the whole province, so they can fight both the Houthis and Al Qaeda fighters in the province,” said Mr Al Sael.
In April, Yemeni troops backed by the coalition drove Al Qaeda from its stronghold in Mukalla, a vital port in the east of Yemen, and many of the extremists fled to Shabwa. Al Qaeda and ISIL militants have also been driven from the suburbs of Aden and other cities on the south coast such as Zinjibar.
Elsewhere, forces loyal to president Abdrabu Mansur Hadi have sent reinforcements to the Red Sea coast to drive the Houthis and their allies, forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, away from a key global shipping route, military officials said on Saturday.
The rebels control much of the country’s Red Sea coastline, that includes Dhubab, just 30 kilometres from the Bab Al Mandeb strait linking the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean.
An Emirati vessel and two US warships in the Red Sea came under missile attack from rebel-held territory in September and October.
The government now aims to “push back the rebels away from the western coast and Bab Al Mandeb, and to secure maritime navigation in the southern part of the Red Sea”, a military official said.
Pro-government forces sent to the area are backed by tanks, other armoured vehicles and Katyusha rocket launchers, military officials said.
They said the offensive aimed to wrest control of the coast from Dhubab as far as Al Khukha, 90 kilometres north. Troops were also sent by the Saudi-led coalition.
Pro-government troops seized Dhubab in early October last year, giving them effective control of Bab Al Mandeb.
The rebels managed to recapture the area in February.
Mr Hadi ordered the assault ahead of a meeting with UN special envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed in Aden on Thursday.
The envoy was there to discuss a new attempt to end the country’s conflict.
The government-run sabanew.net website said Mr Hadi handed him a letter reiterating the government’s rejection of a road map the envoy presented in October, which would see the president eased out of power.
Mr Hadi, who has spent most of his time in Riyadh since the conflict broke out, flew to Aden last Saturday on a surprise visit.
Clashes raged on Friday in several areas in northern Yemen, along the border with Saudi Arabia, military officials said, as coalition warplanes pounded rebel positions.
Air strikes targeted rebels in Nahm, east of Sanaa, and in Ras Isa oil terminal on the Red Sea.
More than 7,000 people have been killed and nearly 37,000 wounded since March 2015.
* With additional reporting from Agence France-Presse