ADEN/SANAA (Reuters) - Yemeni Prime Minister Khaled Bahah returned to the southern port of Aden on Wednesday in a step towards restoring a government on home soil after months of working from exile with Gulf Arab allies to combat Houthi domination of the country.
Government spokesman Rajeh Badi said Bahah, who is also vice president, was accompanied by seven ministers when he arrived in Aden, which loyalist fighters backed by Saudi-led troops recaptured from Iranian-allied Houthi forces in July.
“Khaled Bahah and the ministers who arrived with him are in Aden to stay permanently,” Badi said.
Bahah’s return from Saudi Arabia follows that of several other Yemeni ministers who relocated to Aden from the kingdom in the weeks after the city was retaken. Bahah made a brief visit to Aden on Aug. 1.
President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi fled Aden for the Saudi capital Riyadh in March as Houthi forces closed in. Since its recapture, loyalist forces supported by Saudi-led coalition air strikes have pushed northwards and driven back the Houthis.
Gulf Arab ground forces and loyalists are now waging an offensive westwards through Marib province towards Sanaa in a campaign to eventually oust Houthi militia from the capital, which the movement seized in September 2014.
At a news conference at Aden’s al-Qasr hotel on Wednesday, Badi said “the security file, reconstruction and incorporating the southern resistance into the army” topped the government’s agenda, according to the local Aden al-Ghad news website.
Aden, a city of one million people, had descended into chaos and lawlessness after the Houthis retreated.
Local officials say some 300 local police officers have returned to work since July and some police stations have resumed operations with the help of advisers from the United Arab Emirates.
But Aden residents complain that local authorities have been slow to restore basic services and clean up debris and garbage that accumulated on the streets amid heavy fighting.
Residents also say that fighters from out of town, including some affiliated to al Qaeda, had been spotted on Aden’s streets, raising fears it was being taken over by Islamist militants.
Last month, the city was rocked by a number of incidents, including an explosion next to the governor’s office. A Christian cemetery dating from British rule of Aden that ended nearly 50 years ago was also vandalized.
In the latest attack, assailants set fire to the Church of Saint Joseph, completely torching its contents, a local official said.
“The decision of the government to return to Aden has to be taken immediately before the collapse of the security situation and services,” said Lutfi Shatara, a leader of Herak — a local political coalition seeking to restore the former South Yemen, which merged with the northern part of the country in 1990.
The Arabian Peninsula country’s conflict has killed more than 4,500 people over nearly six months.
The exiled government pulled out of U.N.-sponsored peace talks at the weekend but Badi said on Tuesday it was ready to join them if the Houthis publicly accepted a U.N. resolution calling on them to recognize Hadi as president and withdraw from Yemen’s main cities.
For their part, the Houthis said they would carry on fighting for as long as necessary.
“We stress the importance and seriousness of the national military path in confronting the brutal aggression,” said Mohammed Abdel-Salam, spokesman for the Houthi group, on the Houthi-run Saba news agency.
In Sanaa, residents said coalition air strikes had cut off two bridges, one linking the city to the major Red Sea port of Hodeida and the other to energy-producing Marib. Residents told Reuters that the air strikes, carried out overnight and into Wednesday, meant that “trucks and cars are unable to cross”.
“The strikes caused a big crater in the (Sanaa-Hodeida) bridge which forced many travelers to turn back, and trucks that are carrying food products and fuel are unable to reach the capital,” one resident said.
Officials in Sanaa said coalition air strikes had hit a road linking Sanaa with Marib. They said a makeshift dust road was being used for passengers and trucks to cross but it was extremely crowded.
Additional reporting by Mohammed Ghobari in Sanaa and Marwa Al-Malik in Dubai; Writing by Sami Aboudi and Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Mark Heinrich