UAE-backed forces enter central Yemen fray as UN warns of military escalation


ADEN, Jan 13 (Reuters) - Yemeni forces backed by the United Arab Emirates have joined coalition troops fighting the Houthi movement around the central city of Marib in a renewed push to secure the prize of an energy-producing region.

The battle for Marib, where the Iran-aligned Houthis had advanced on most districts barring the main city and nearby hydrocarbon sites, dashed hopes for any imminent truce that the United Nations and the United States have struggled to engineer.

U.N. special envoy for Yemen, Hans Grundberg, told the Security Council on Wednesday that both sides are "doubling down on military options" and warned of devastating implications for civilians and immediate peace prospects.

The nearly seven-year-old conflict, largely seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, has killed tens of thousands of people, displaced millions and pushed Yemen to the verge of famine as the economy collapsed.

Over the past month, fighting in al-Jawf in the north, Marib in central Yemen and Shabwa in the south has displaced more than 15,000 people, according to the United Nations.

"People are pessimistic and do not know where the country is heading," Abdullah al-Nisi, an engineer in Shabwa, told Reuters.

The Saudi-led coalition this week announced a new operation aimed at turning the tide after newly deployed UAE-backed Giants Brigade forces, supported by air strikes, expelled Houthi forces from oil-producing Shabwa, reopening access to Marib.

The Brigades - mostly based along the western coast which has been relatively quiet over the past three years - entered Marib on Monday and have since seized large parts of Huraib district, local military sources said.

"The Giants Brigades are better armed and trained (than other Yemeni coalition forces) and fresh to the fight ... The Houthis will put up fierce resistance, but in general their ranks are exhausted," said Maysaa Shuja Al-Deen, a fellow at the Sanaa Centre for Strategic Studies.

A Yemeni official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Brigades deployed to Shabwa after the province's pro-government governor, a member of the Islamist Islah Party which the UAE distrusts, was replaced two weeks ago.

The conflict is a multifaceted one with several Yemeni factions vying for power. The UAE largely ended its military presence on the ground in 2019 amid a military stalemate but continues to hold sway via Yemeni forces it armed and trained.

The coalition intervened in March 2015 after the Houthis ousted the internationally recognised government from the capital Sanaa.

The Houthis, who say they are fighting a corrupt system and foreign aggression, largely control the north while the government is based in the south, where protests erupted last year over the deteriorating economic situation.

"People will die of hunger but it is clear the war will drag on," said Tah al-Subaihi, a student at Aden University.

Additional reporting by Reyam Mokhashef; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous, Editing by Angus MacSwan

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