ADEN (Reuters) - Forces loyal to exiled President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi seized Yemen’s southern province of Shabwa on Saturday, residents and tribesmen said, building momentum after weeks of victories against the dominant Houthi movement.
The loyalist fighters, backed by a Saudi-led coalition, have advanced on a broad front through southern Yemen in recent weeks, forcing the Houthis and army units aligned with former strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh into retreat.
Tribal sources said a pro-Saleh military commander in the area had agreed with tribal forces to withdraw from the provincial capital Ataq after a week of fierce fighting throughout the province.
“As per the agreement with tribes that pledged not to allow al-Qaeda members to be present in Ataq, the city was handed over to the tribes,” a Houthi official told Reuters.
Residents said they saw military vehicles retreating north from Ataq on Saturday morning, as pro-Hadi forces advanced into the city with a column of tanks and armored vehicles.
The Houthis seized the capital Sanaa in September. Hadi fled to the southern port of Aden, and from there to Saudi Arabia.
Loyalist forces took back full control of Aden last month and have since driven the Houthis from the provinces of Lahj, Dalea and Abyan, supported by air strikes and military advisors from a Gulf Arab coalition.
The Saudi-led alliance began launching air strikes in late March just as the Iran-allied Houthis entered Aden, the last major city to hold out against a six-month advance through the country.
For four months, the coalition has launched almost daily air raids across the country and cut off the Houthis’ supply lines with a naval blockade, before loyalist forces were able to drive the Houthis from Aden and reopen the airport in late July.
Since then, loyalist forces have made rapid gains, using tanks and artillery supplied by the coalition to drive the poorly-equipped Houthis back towards Sanaa and their northern stronghold. The United Arab Emirates has also deployed military advisors to support pro-Hadi forces.
The coalition, made up of Sunni Arab monarchies, is keen to repel perceived Iranian influence on the Arabian Peninsula, while the Shi’ite Houthis and their allies say they are fighting against corruption and Yemen’s branch of al Qaeda.
Foreign diplomats and aid groups have pleaded for a political solution to the fighting which has killed more than 4,300 people.
Reporting by Mohammed Mukhashaf and Mohammed Ghobari Writing by Reem Shamseddine, Editing by Sam Wilkin and Angus MacSwan