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Houthis advance on biggest airbase in government-held south Yemen

Houthis move to regain ground in southern Yemen as UN envoy unveils peace roadmap, calls on both sides to speed up their negotiations
Yemeni pro-government forces retake Al-Anad airbase from the Houthis last August (AFP)

The Houthis advanced towards Yemen's biggest airbase after clashes with government forces supported by a Saudi-led coalition that killed 30 people, with most casualties among the rebel group, military officials said.

Once the military base which housed US troops overseeing a drone war against al-Qaeda, Al-Anad air base has traded hands once before since the start of the conflict. 

In March 2015, the Houthis overran the base, about 60km north of Aden where Yemen's government is now based. Several month later, in August, government forces recaptured it.

But the Houthis and allied troops loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh are now about 20km away from the base after recapturing a mountain overlooking the base after fierce battles left 18 Houthis and six loyalists dead, a military officials said. 

While the base is unlikely to serve a strategic purpose for the Houthis who have not used air power to fight pro-government forces, its recapture would be symbolic as the group edges closer to the south, the stronghold for the government in exile.

Last summer, the Houthis advanced into the south and took parts of Aden before pro-government forces pushed the group back.

On Tuesday, coalition warplanes bombed the Houthis and Saleh-allied troops advancing towards the base, but a missile hit a nearby house by mistake, killing six members of one family, another military official said.

Fighting has continued on several fronts in Yemen despite a UN-brokered ceasefire which took effect in 11 April and paved the way for ongoing talks in Kuwait.

Envoy urges speedier peace

The advance on the key air base came as UN's special envoy to Yemen told the UN Security Council on Tuesday that he has proposed a roadmap for the peaceful settlement to end 14 months of armed conflict. 

After two months of negotiations in Kuwait, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed also urged the warring sides to speed up their peace process.

The envoy said his roadmap would implement Security Council resolutions that would require the Houthis and their allies to withdraw from areas they occupied in 2014, including the capital Sanaa, and handover weapons. 

Also part of the roadmap, a national unity government would be established to ensure the delivery of basic services, address the recovery of the economy and prepare for dialogue paving the way for a comprehensive solution, he said.

"The delegations have responded positively to the proposals, but have not yet reached agreement on the sequencing of the different steps provided in the roadmap," mainly when would the national unity government be formed, he said.

The Houthis overran Yemen's capital Sanaa in late 2014 before moving into other parts of the country, prompting a Saudi-led coalition to intervene last March.

The UN says more than 6,400 people have been killed in Yemen since then, mostly civilians.

Fighting has driven 2.8 million people from their homes and left more than 80 percent of the population needing humanitarian aid.

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