After three days of fierce fighting, fighter says pro-government forces poised to battle Houthis on their mountainous home turf
TAIZ, Yemen - Under the cover of Saudi-led coalition air strikes, pro-Yemeni government forces were advancing on a Houthi stronghold in northwest Yemen near the Saudi border on Thursday after recapturing “dozens of kilometres” of territory from the group.
Successfully retaking the Marran district in the Saada governorate - where Houthi leader Abdul Malik al-Houthi and other prominent members have lived in hard-to-reach mountain hideouts for decades – would be a major symbolic victory for pro-Hadi forces.
It is not easy to mount up Marran mountains, where thousands of the bravest fighters are protecting the stronghold of the Houthis
- Pro-Hadi fighter
On Tuesday, as Yemenis celebrated Eid, Al-Oroobah forces, a pro-Hadi brigade, led attacks on the district from four different directions, according to the state-run Saba News Agency and 26 September, the Yemeni army website. The operation, nicknamed ‘Cut the head of the snake’, was only publicly announced on Wednesday.
An Al-Oroobah fighter told Middle East Eye on Thursday that after fierce fighting with the Houthis, the brigade have retaken a significant amount of territory in the area including a key valley and several hills.
He said they are now poised to advance on the Marran mountains, where the Houthis are based, but have not started the approach yet.
The territory has proved to be challenging for pro-government forces in the past: from 2004 to 2010, they launched six wars against the Houthis but could never fully defeat the group, unable to get control of the mountainous area.
“It is not easy to mount up Marran mountains, where thousands of the bravest fighters are protecting the stronghold of the Houthis,” the fighter said.
Over the past three days, the Houthis have been digging in their heels and fighting hard to recapture the territory they have lost, the fighter said, but they have not made headway against the pro-Hadi forces, who are armed with state-of-the-art weaponry and under the cover of Saudi-led air strikes.
He said: "The air strikes have been playing a main role and we cannot advance without them."
The strikes have heavily targeted several districts in Saada province, including Marran, with pro-Hadi sources reporting that Houthi leaders had been singled out. But no credible reports have emerged in Saada suggesting any Houthi leaders have been killed.
The Houthi TV channel Al-Masirah said on Wednesday that the air strikes focused on the houses and farms of civilians in Saada, not military targets.
Houthi-affiliated political analyst Mohammed al-Dailami said the extent of the pro-Hadi forces' advance had been exaggerated in media reports and said they had not, in fact, reached the key mountains in Marran.
There were also reports on Thursday that the Houthis had declared a state of emergency in the province as a result of the operation, but he denied the reports and said life continued in Saada as normal, even with the threat of air strikes to civilians.
Rammah al-Jubari, a Yemeni journalist based in Saudi Arabia who was in Saada last month, said even just the arrival of the pro-Hadi forces in the Marran mountains is a significant development.
A month ago, Jubari said he witnessed the army advance 14 kilometres from the Saudi border to the he was in al-Mallaheadh district, next to Marran, during a military operation to recapture that district.
"I saw the Houthi military vehicles were burnt and some of the Houthi corpses were left in the lands," he said.
“The arrival of the national army in Marran mountains has a strategic importance... It is a moral defeat for the leader of the Houthis and his supporters,” Jubari said. “Marran is a historical symbol for the Houthis and the centre of their starting point."
Hadi, he pointed out, has repeatedly promised that one day the Yemeni flag would be raised over the mountains.
But Dailami, the Houthi-affiliated analyst, questioned whether the forces would be able to succeed in their operation.
The Saudi-led coalition and pro-Hadi forces “have been saying that they will attack Marran for three years, but they did not do it and they cannot do it as Marran is in a well-fortified area”.
“It is stupid of [the Saudi-led coalition] to say they can enter Marran at once because they are not aware of the fortifications in Marran, which is a mountainous area,” he said.