TEHRAN — As a prelude to months of siege and bombardment, Yemen’s army began fending off Houthi fighters’ advances in Marib province on Friday. Yet as both sides upped their attacks in the latest fight over a northern province captured by the Houthis, it was unclear if Marib was an urgent staging ground for an assault on the capital, Sanaa.
“Marib is a staging ground for the advance of the fighting between the warring Houthis and the (militia backed by forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh),” said an official with a Western-backed Saudi-led coalition opposed to the Houthis. “The advance is an initiative to keep fighting, or use Marib to fill gaps.”
Late Thursday, a Red Cross worker said residents of Marib city and its surroundings reported seeing the bodies of more than 200 people near the city’s central market, most of them elderly people. Medics there were preventing large numbers of wounded from reaching health facilities, said Alexandre Hartog, who has been following the fighting from a displacement camp for refugees near the port of Hodeida.
On Friday, Houthi warplanes carried out a bombing run on an army battalion, which was then pushed back by sporadic rebel shelling, according to official sources at a military air base in Marib province. Most government and pro-government fighters there appear to be positioned to defend their bases, including the nearby air base.
Late Friday, one pro-government officer and 21 Houthi fighters were killed, while pro-government forces apparently killed 30 rebels, the pro-government source said.
Another pro-government officer said that the situation was unclear about an exact location, claiming the United Nations had already reported it as the Marib army’s position. But the anti-Houthi ground campaign may be advancing toward Qannah in northwestern Yemen, which could serve as a stalling point to further the Saudi-led military offensive, if the Houthis cease their offensive.
Qannah province is the political and religious heartland of anti-Houthi rebels, whose leaders are believed to have fled to the country’s south as the fight has picked up.
Most civilian casualties have been reported since the current anti-Houthi offensive began in mid-March, but the number of civilians killed in recent days seems to have grown as the fighting has shifted from the provinces south to the northern one.
Militia units loyal to the Saudi-backed government are backed by troops from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, in addition to Yemeni troops and paramilitary forces from southern Yemen.
The coalition has stepped up airstrikes on rebel strongholds in the north, but also tries to focus on strategic sites that the Houthis could take control of and use as base for their efforts to take control of the port city of Hodeida. That city is of much strategic importance as the entry point for much of Yemen’s commercial imports, especially food, as well as its humanitarian aid.
U.N. officials reported hundreds of thousands of people displaced as government forces try to force back the Houthis in Marib, Taiz and other northern provinces.
A government official in Marib, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to journalists, said he expected an escalation in hostilities there as the offensive on Hodeida got closer. Marib, just a few kilometers (miles) from the Saudi border, has escaped the heavy airstrikes of the Saudi-led air campaign against the Houthis but has nonetheless been hit by shell fire from rebel-held areas, he said.
An official in the Houthi-controlled Yemeni Interior Ministry said that his government had taken in two oil tankers hijacked by pro-government forces but they were destroyed by Houthi rebels. The officials said they recovered the oil tanks.