ADEN (Reuters) - Saudi-backed Yemeni fighters completed their offensive to retake the southern city of Aden from the Houthi militia on Friday, residents said, as fighting in one main district subsided.
Their victory in the port city - backed up by training and heavy weapons delivered by an Arab military coalition - marks a turning point in almost four months of aerial bombing and civil war in which battle lines seldom changed but more than 3,500 people have been killed and a million displaced.
The war in Yemen has pitted the Sunni Muslim Gulf states which support the exiled government against the Shi’ite Houthis allied to Iran, in a conflict that has further raised the stakes as the Middles East grapples with regional rivalries and sectarian strife.
Aden has been a focus of fighting since the Iranian-allied Houthis first laid siege to it in March when it was the last bastion to the government which then fled to Saudi Arabia.
Several residents displaced from their homes in Tawahi, a district in the west of the city which had been the last redoubt of the Houthis in Aden, told Reuters they had returned to their homes and that despite occasional gunfire the streets were controlled by anti-Houthi gunmen.
Khaled Bahah, vice president of Yemen’s exiled government in Riyadh, hailed the “liberation” of the city on his Facebook page, and several ministers and top intelligence officials touched down in the city on Friday to prepare it as a base to revive the shattered Yemeni state.
Once one of the world’s busiest ports, Aden sits near the Bab al-Mandab shipping lane, a major energy gateway for Europe, Asia and the United States via the Red Sea and the Suez Canal.
Exiled president Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi praised the fighters and the Arab alliance, promising that the gains in Aden were the start of a drive to take back the country.
“We will soon achieve a glorious victory in Yemen, our beloved country, in its entirety ... the victory in Aden will be the key to saving our cause,” Hadi said in a televised speech.
Reuters witnesses reported seeing streets filled up with cars and pedestrians and residents pinned down my deadly shelling day and night emerged in safety.
“Praise God,” said 35-year-old fish seller Wasseem al-Hiswa.
“We’re so happy we can return to our normal lives after such suffering for almost four months. But huge problems remain - water and electricity cut off often, so we’re still suffering a lot,” he said.
Ali Al-Ahmedi, spokesman for the local fighters in Aden, told Reuters that dozens of Houthi fighters had surrendered to the militiamen as they lost ground.
The advances began on Tuesday when local fighters seized the city’s international airport, followed by the main sea port the next day, then one district after another.
Fighters and eyewitnesses say the Aden offensive was backed up by donations of heavy weapons by the Arab alliance including around 100 armored vehicles by the United Arab Emirates.
Dozens have been killed on both sides in the clashes since the beginning of the week, medics said.
The Shi’ite Muslim Houthis seized the capital, Sanaa, in September and pushed into Yemen’s south and east in March and April in what they say is a revolution against a corrupt government and hardline Sunni Muslim militants.
Their spread has been aided by most of Yemen’s army, which remains loyal to former strongman President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was ousted in Arab Spring protests in 2011.
In a statement on his official twitter page, Saleh said Yemen would continue to resist the Saudi-backed campaign.
“We will thwart one of the most dangerous conspiracies yet against our people ... no matter how long the aggression continues and the aggressors go to far in their war of extermination, no matter how long it lasts it will end in failure,” Saleh wrote.
Fighters said they were advancing toward the Anad air base 60 km (40 miles) north of Aden with backing from air strikes.
Nevertheless, on the Muslim feasting holiday of Eid, food and basic supplies were being blocked at Houthi checkpoints on the city’s outskirts, residents said.
Additional reporting by Mohammed Ghobari; Writing by Noah Browning; Editing by Giles Elgood