Heavy clashes rage in central Yemen; dozens killed

AP , Sunday 14 Feb 2021

The Iranian-backed rebels earlier this month renewed their attack on the oil-rich province, an anti-Houthi stronghold held by the internationally recognized government

Sanaa, Yemen
FILE PHOTO: In this Saturday, Aug. 22, 2020 file photo, tribesmen loyal to Houthi rebels raise their weapons during a gathering against the agreement to establish diplomatic relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates in Sanaa, Yemen. (Photo: AP)

Heavy fighting between forces of Yemen's internationally recognized government and Houthi rebels raged again on Sunday, extending a week of violence in the strategic province of Marib, Yemeni officials said. With dozens killed, the fighting has cast major doubt over UN-led efforts to restart negotiations to end years of civil war.

The Iranian-backed rebels earlier this month renewed their attack on the oil-rich province, an anti-Houthi stronghold held by the internationally recognized government. But they faced stiff resistance and have not made progress amid heavy causalities mostly from the Houthis, military officials from both sides said.

Yemen's war started in 2014, when the rebels seized the capital, Sanaa, and much of the country's north. A Saudi-led, US-backed intervened months later to dislodge the Houthis and restore the internationally recognized government. The conflict has killed some 130,000 people and spawned the world's worst humanitarian disaster.

The rebels seek to wrestle control of Marib, closing off Saudi-Arabia's southern border and taking control of oil fields in the province that would give them leverage in possible peace negotiations.

Alarmed by the Houthis' renewed push, the Saudi-led coalition bombed their advancing convoys in the sprawling desert around Marib. It also brought in ground enforcements from the government-held provinces of Taiz and Shabwa, the officials said.

The Houthis' media office reported Tuesday at least 10 airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition in Marib, and two more airstrikes on the neighboring province of Jaw, which the rebels use as base to launch their latest attack in Marib.

More than 48 fighters were killed and over 120 were wounded in the past two days, mostly Houthis, the officials said. Over two dozen others were reported killed at the start of the attack.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.

The fighting could cause significant civilian casualties if it extended to urban areas in Marib. The province, which houses the ancient Great Marib Dam, has served as a sort of haven for hundreds of thousands of Yemenis who have fled Houthi offensives since the start of the war. A bout of violence last year also displaced thousands of families.

The fighting in Marib could also thwart renewed efforts by the UN to re-launch negotiations between the warring sides. They have not held substantive negotiations since 2019.

UN envoy Martin Griffiths said last week he was ``extremely concerned'' about hostilities in Marib, especially at a time of ``renewed diplomatic momentum,'' in an apparent reference to the latest measures US President Joe Biden's administration have taken on Yemen's conflict.

President Joe Biden has turned a spotlight on the brutal conflict, declaring earlier this month that the United States would end its support of the Saudi-led military offensive, including ``relevant'' arms sales. The administration has also moved to lift a terrorist designation against the Houthis, citing the need to mitigate Yemen's humanitarian crisis.

The Houthis have also recently accelerated their cross-border attacks by explosive-laden drones on Saudi Arabia, in an apparent attempt to pressure the Saudi-led coalition to stop its air bombing on the rebels in Marib and elsewhere in Yemen.

Rebel leader Mohammed Ali al-Houthi called for airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition to stop in return to halting Houthi drone and missile attacks on the kingdom.

``Stopping the bombing in return for (stopping) the bombing, we are present if there is seriousness,'' he said.

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