CAIRO (AP) — Forces of Yemen’s internationally recognized government have reclaimed the entire southern province of Shabwa from Iran-backed Houthi rebels, officials said Tuesday. The development is a blow to the rebels after government forces earlier this month made significant advances in the country’s south.
The government, aided by allies from a pro-government militia, the Giants Brigades, and airstrikes from the Saudi-led coalition, pushed through Shabwa this month, retaking the entire province in a 10-day battle, officials said.
Military spokesman Mohammed al-Naqib said they have achieved “all targets” and pushed the Houthis out of the districts of Ain, Usailan and Bayhan.
Provincial Gov. Awad al-Awlaki also announced the “liberation of Shabwa,” thanking Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — which fund the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthis.
There was no immediate comment from the Houthis, but two rebel leaders acknowledged to The Associated Press that they lost control of Shabwa. The rebels fled to the nearby central provinces of Bayda and Marib, said the two, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
Asel al-Saqaldi, a spokesman for the Giants Brigades, said their fighters have retaken large swaths of territory in the Harib district in Marib from the Houthis. The rebels seized Harib in September as part of their offensive on Marib city.
Taking Shabwa enabled government forces to cut major supply lines for the Houthis, who have been attacking the key city of Marib, the last government stronghold in northern Yemen, since early last year. The rebels have repeatedly pushed back against U.N. and U.S. diplomatic efforts to halt the Marib offensive, as well as rebel missile and drone attacks on Saudi Arabia.
U.N. envoy for Yemen Hans Grundberg urged all sides to engage in talks to de-escalate and to find a negotiated settlement to the conflict. “There are no sustainable solutions to be gained from military escalation,” he said.
Fighting between government forces and the Houthi rebels has accelerated in recent months. Brig. Gen. Turki al-Malki, spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition, said they have begun a military operation on all front lines in the conflict “to liberate all Yemeni territories” from the Houthis.
He spoke at a news conference Tuesday in Shabwa along with al-Awlaki, the provincial governor.
Al-Malki reiterated coalition accusations that the Houthis use the strategic Hodeida port to smuggle weapons, without providing evidence. “Houthi militia militarize the ports, and use civilians and civilian infrastructure as shields,” he said.
The Houthis earlier this year seized an Emirati ship in the Red Sea off Hodeida, claiming that it carried weapons. The coalition called for the rebels to release the Rwabee, warning that it would attack ports used by the rebels to seize the vessel. Such an attack, if it happened, would likely shatter the fragile U.N.-brokered cease-fire in 2018 that ended fighting over the strategic port.
On Tuesday, the U.N. mission supporting the deal demanded the inspection of the three ports in Hodeida, saying it “stands ready to address concerns pertaining to any militarization of the ports.”
U.N.-led efforts for negotiations have failed to make significant progress in the years long conflict in Yemen. The civil war began in 2014, when the Houthis took the capital, Sanaa, and much of northern Yemen, forcing the government to flee to the south, then to exile in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi-led coalition, backed at the time by the U.S., entered the war months later to try restoring the government to power.
The conflict has since become a regional proxy war that has killed tens of thousands of civilians and fighters. The war also created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, leaving millions suffering from food and medical care shortages and pushing the country to the brink of famine.