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Anti-Houthi forces edge closer to Sanaa as fighting continues

Escalation comes as UN human rights chief calls for independent inquiry into violations by both sides
Anti-Houthi southern tribesmen, backed by Saudi-led coalition forces, push toward Sanaa (AFP)

Saudi-backed forces in Yemen pressed an offensive against the Houthis and their allies on Monday, the second day of a major campaign aimed at retaking the capital a year after its fall.

The fighting has so far concentrated on the key Marib province, which is energy-rich and neighbours Sanaa to the east.  

The escalation comes as the exiled government backed out of a proposed new round of UN-brokered peace talks, insisting that the Houthis - who have been supported by militias loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh - should withdraw from captured territory.

"The aim is to cut the supply routes of the Houthis," a military official told AFP. 

Out of their Al-Aber base in nearby Hadramawt province, anti-Houthi troops have moved towards four rebel footholds in northwest Marib on the route to Sanaa, the official added. 

At a landing zone in Safer camp, in Marib, an AFP correspondent reported fully armed Saudi-led coalition Apache helicopters taking off and returning, as a convoy of armoured vehicles and personnel carriers headed to the front.

Coalition forces have also deployed Patriot missile defence systems, Yemeni military sources said, following a 4 September missile attack on Safer that killed 67 coalition troops.

Yemen has been embroiled in turmoil since last September when the Houthis stormed the capital. While they pledged to retreat once the government promised a string of concessions, they overthrew the parliament in January and placed President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi under house arrest.

Hadi was later able to flee south to Aden and as Houthi forces began to march south he escaped to Riyadh in March. Days later, Saudi Arabia announced that it had formed a coalition to roll back the Houthi advances and return Hadi to power. 

After months of fierce airstrikes against Houthi positions, the Saudi-led campaign and its Yemeni supporters managed to send the Houthis into retreat in July. The aerial bombing campaign has since been expanded to a ground offensive, with Gulf Arab troops also battling on the ground to evict rebels from Marib. 

The United Arab Emirates said its troops were taking part in the latest operations and announced the death of one of its soldiers.

"Our forces have launched military operations in Marib, achieving progress on the ground and pushing back the Houthi militiamen, as part of operations conducted by the Arab coalition," a UAE military official said late Sunday.

"During these operations, one of our soldiers has fallen martyr," said the official, whose country lost 52 soldiers in the Safer missile strike and has vowed to avenge their deaths.

UN call for inquiry

The UN human rights chief, Zeid Raad al-Hussein, has now called for an independent inquiry into violations by both sides. 

He told the Human Rights Council in Geneva that 21 million people, or 80 percent of the population, was now in need of humanitarian aid.

Overall, more than 4,500 people, many of them civilians, have been killed in Yemen's conflict since March, according to the World Health Organisation.

Shelling and border skirmishes have also killed at least 60 people in Saudi Arabia.

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