A new phase in Yemen’s civil war seemed to be opening Tuesday as troops from an alliance of Gulf states began marching towards the front lines with Houthi rebels in Marib province, east of the capital Sana’a, witnesses said Tuesday.
The troops moved from the Safer base, where three days earlier 60 coalition soldiers were killed in a missile strike claimed by the Houthi-controlled Yemeni Defence Ministry.
Witnesses said that Gulf troops and allied Yemeni forces, backed by armoured cars, tanks and rocket launchers, were heading towards Harib, some 70 kilometres to the south, and the nearby city of Beihan.
Coalition warplanes, meanwhile, hit a military base held by pro-Houthi forces in Beihan, which lies in Shabwa province, local residents said.
The coalition has not yet launched major operations against the Houthis and allied military units in the northern highlands where they enjoy most support.
Beihan is the last Houthi stronghold in the formerly independent south, but neighbouring Marib would be a logical starting point for ground operations in the north.
Local tribes have mounted fierce opposition to the Houthis for months, and Yemeni army forces in the area have remained loyal to exiled President Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi.
Troops from the United Arab Emirates are reported to have played a key role in operations that drove the mainly Shiite Houthis from most of southern Yemen in recent months.
Recent days have seen Saudi Arabia and Qatar send reinforcements to Safir and another base east of Marib as Hadi’s supporters speak of a potential operation to recapture the capital.
Sources close to the Iranian embassy, meanwhile, said that the Islamic republic’s ambassador and his deputy had left Sana’a.
Their apparent departure came after Hadi’s foreign minister, Riad Yassin, said the embassy was acting as a “military command centre” for the Houthis, supplying them with financial support and intelligence.
Hadi’s government and its Gulf allies accuse Tehran of backing the Houthis. Iran, which has warm relations with the rebels, has condemned the Saudi-led intervention against them, but denies that it has given them material support.
Coalition warplanes, which have stepped up their air raids on Sana’a since Friday’s missile strike on Safir, hit police buildings and a military base in the capital on Tuesday morning.
Strikes in the capital and in the central city of Yarim have killed more than 40 civilians since Saturday, according to local journalists and medical officials.
The Houthis, originally a Shiite revivalist movement, control most of Yemen’s historically dominant northern highlands, but have been pushed back by coalition-backed local forces in the south and centre of the country in recent months.
The conflict has killed thousands. UN agencies say that more than 4,500 people have been killed in Yemen since fighting intensified in March, including close to 400 children.
The World Food Programme has warned that the country, one of the poorest in the Arab world even before fighting flared up, is now on the brink of famine.