DUBAI (Reuters) - Yemeni government forces backed by Gulf Arab troops have secured the Red Sea coast city of al-Mokha, United Arab Emirates news agency WAM reported on Tuesday, in a push that paves the way for an advance on the country’s main port city of Hodeidah.
Supporters of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi have been fighting for weeks to capture the small town, which once served as a main port for exporting coffee, from the Iran-aligned Houthi that has held it since early 2015.
The advance comes amid rising tensions between the United States and Iran since President Donald Trump came to office in January. U.S. officials said last week that the United States had deployed a Navy destroyer, the USS Cole, to patrol off the coast of Yemen to protect waterways from Houthis, including escorting vessels.
A military coalition led by Saudi Arabia entered Yemen’s civil war in March 2015 to try to reinstate Hadi after he was ousted from the capital Sanaa by the tribal Houthis, who are fighting in an alliance with troops loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
WAM said that local fighters, known as the Yemeni Resistance, stormed the city from the south, east and north. The UAE contingent in the Saudi-led Arab alliance played the main role in liberating al-Mokha through the participation of ground forces and by providing fire power from both the air and the ground as well as intelligence, the agency said.
It said that a large number of Houthi fighters were either killed or taken prisoner.
Residents in the city confirmed the city had been captured but gave no figures on casualties.
The Houthi-run Saba news agency said air strikes from the Saudi-led coalition struck a market in Mokha killing a number of people and destroying shops, but made no mention of the city falling.
The advance cements Hadi supporters’ control over a large stretch of the Red Sea coast from the strategic Bab al-Mandab Strait to al-Mokha and paves the way for an advance on Hodeidah, located some 185 km (115 miles) to the north. Hodeidah is Yemen’s main port for food imports for the country of 26 million people.
Gulf Arab countries are concerned the Houthis are a proxy for their arch-rival Iran - a charge Tehran denies.
They and Hadi’s government say their campaign aims to protect Bab al-Mandeb, through which nearly 4 million barrels of oil are shipped daily to Europe, the United States and Asia.
While government forces in the south and east nominally hold most of Yemen’s territory, Hadi has struggled to enforce state authority among various militias, militants and tribes. The Houthis control most of Yemen’s population centers in the northwest including Sanaa.
At least 10,000 people have died in the mostly stalemated Yemeni conflict, which has unleashed a humanitarian crisis in an already desperately poor Arabian Peninsula country.
Reporting by Mohammed Ghobari and Mohammed Mukhashaf, Writing by Sami Aboudi; editing by Ralph Boulton