ADEN // Resistance forces have driven Houthi fighters and their allies from 90 per cent of Taez city, a key battleground in the Yemen conflict that has seen some of the fiercest fighting.
The leader of the city’s 15,000-strong popular resistance, Hamoud Al Mikhlafi, said the fighting had become bogged down as his fighters battled the rebels street by street.
“We have a clear plan for the liberation of Taez, which we are implementing systematically, but we are advancing slowly because we want to minimise losses and casualties,” the commander told The National during an interview in Aden, where he was meeting members of president Abdrabu Mansur Hadi’s government and leaders of the Gulf-led military coalition.
The Houthis attacked Taez in March after they took over the capital Sanaa, forcing Mr Hadi’s internationally recognised government to flee.
But Taez residents quickly formed militias and, using their own weapons, prevented the city from being fully captured by the rebels and their allies — Yemeni army divisions loyal to the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
As the fighting spread elsewhere in the country, the Houthis and Mr Saleh’s forces enforced a blockade of Taez, leading to a desperate humanitarian situation in the city with shortages of food and medical supplies.
There are about 9,000 injured people in Taez needing treatment, said the grey-haired Mr Al Mikhlafi, weary from months of battle.
“We cannot help them. The injured people die in front of our eyes, they do not find the medicines and they do not get the specialist doctors, and there is a shortage in oxygen cylinders,” he said.
The 50-year-old father of 11, who has lost one son in the fighting, said he made the treacherous journey out of Taez, travelling through the countryside, to reach Aden and ask for more help in the battle.
He met with UAE military commanders who have played a leading role in helping Yemeni fighters drive the Houthis from the south of the country.
But Mr Al Mikhlafi said that while his forces had driven the rebels from much of Taez city, they were engaged in urban warfare against several thousand fighters loyal to former president Saleh and armed by Iran. Mr Saleh, now in alliance with the Houthi rebels from the north, had kept troops stationed at several bases in Taez, the city where protests against his three decades rule began in 2011.
Mr Al Mikhlafi had played a key role in the uprising, leading militias to defend the protesters from Mr Saleh’s troops before going on to act as a mediator or “peacemaker” in the city. Nearly four years since the protests forced Mr Saleh from power, Mr Al Mikhlafi is once again locked in battle with his old foe.
“We are advancing slowly, as the military camps that are loyal to Saleh spread into Taez city, and the residents of Taez do not have experience of fighting,” he said.
To finally defeat Mr Saleh’s forces Al Mikhlafi said he needs “everything”.
“Taez needs medical supplies, Taez needs basic commodities, in addition to the ammunition and heavy arms,” he said.
The commander described his meeting with Emirati military officials as fruitful and said he was grateful for the help his fighters had received so far, including large supplies of weapons and ammunition. But he said more was needed to support his fighters on the front lines.
Mr Al Mikhlafi said he had no shortage of volunteers from Taez, many who have suffered from what the United Nations has described as the indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas by the rebels and Saleh loyalists.
The commander has been flooded with thousands of volunteers wanting to join the fight, which is focused on two fronts inside the city and said his forces included 150 women.
He said that Iran’s revolutionary guards had supplied arms to the Houthis and Mr Saleh’s troops but that he had not seen any Iranian forces on the ground in Taez.
Heading the Popular Resistance has come at great personal cost. He said while the coalition had covered 20 per cent of the costs in Taez, many fighters were now going unpaid and he had taken on debt to fund the battle.
“All of this debt is for the hospitals, pharmacies, medical companies, and expenditure for the fighters,” he said. “I have been forced to come to Aden after eight months of the war to meet the president to help me in my debt.”
The Saudi Arabia-led coalition on Saturday announced the end of a notional two-week ceasefire, blaming Mr Saleh and the Houthis for repeated violations.
Mr Al Mikhlafi, said a political solution to the conflict was “a problem” when dealing with these two parties.
“There is a UN resolution, and we are demanding a direct implementation of this resolution,” he said referring to a UN plan calling for the Houthis to handover their arms and withdraw from occupied territory.
“The matter of Yemen in general can only be solved by force.”