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Dozens of Houthis and pro-government troops killed in Yemen's Marib

Military officials say at least 16 pro-government forces were killed, 21 wounded, in past 24 hours in the strategic area
A Russian-built BMP-2 infantry fighting vehicle belonging to forces loyal to Yemen's Saudi-backed government gets into position during clashes with Houthi fighters northwest of Marib, central Yemen, on 11 February 2021 (AFP)

Dozens of fighters were killed in overnight clashes in Yemen as Iran-backed Houthi rebels intensified attacks to seize the government's last northern stronghold, officials told AFP on Sunday. 

Earlier this month, the Houthis resumed an offensive to seize oil-rich Marib, some 120km east of the capital Sanaa.

The city's loss would be disastrous for Yemen's beleaguered leadership.

Two government military officials said at least 16 pro-government fighters were killed and 21 wounded in the past 24 hours, adding that "dozens were killed" among Houthi ranks. 

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The Houthis have cut off supply lines to a district about 50km south of the city, with "the goal to lay siege to Marib," one of the sources told AFP.

The battle for Marib is the latest development in a protracted conflict between the Houthi movement and a western-backed, Saudi-led coalition that intervened in Yemen in 2015 to reinstate the government of Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi.

Saudi Arabia has invested heavily in Marib in recent years, and the Saudi-led coalition has intensified air strikes to stop the rebels from seizing the city. 

In addition to its oil fields and its Safer oil refinery, Marib is a key producer of natural gas, supplying the entire country. The Houthis have been poised to take the province, which neighbours Sanaa, since early last year.

Houthi spokesman Mohamed Abdelsalam tweeted on Saturday that the rebels were fighting "only those militarily involved with the foreign enemy" amid government calls for residents to defend the city.

"May the honourable people of Marib be reassured... and acknowledge that the aggressor coalition is fighting them, not for them," he said. 

US President Joe Biden has announced an end of support for Saudi-led offensive operations in Yemen and halted some weapons sales to Riyadh, as part of a major reset in foreign policy following his inauguration in January.

The rebels have also escalated attacks against Saudi Arabia, drawing condemnation from the international community.

The coalition said on Sunday it had destroyed two explosive drones fired by the Houthis towards Khamis Mushait, in southwest Saudi Arabia.

A military spokesman for the Houthi group said two drones launched on Sunday afternoon by its forces had struck Saudi Arabia's Abha airport, to the west of Khamis Mushait.

The kingdom had said a day earlier it had foiled a Houthi drone attack on Abha airport, just days after a rebel drone strike on the airport left a civilian aircraft ablaze.

End of terrorist designation

The upsurge in violence comes shortly after the United States decided to remove the rebels from its list of terrorist groups in order to ensure humanitarian work in Yemen is unimpeded and to pave the way to restart peace talks.

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On Sunday, Saudi's permanent representative to the UN said that his country will continue to treat the Houthis as a terrorist organisation despite the US decision.

Yemen's grinding conflict has claimed tens of thousands of lives and displaced millions, according to international organisations, sparking what the UN calls the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

On Friday, the UN agencies warned that about 400,000 Yemeni children aged under five were in danger of dying of acute malnutrition this year.

The UN agencies also warned that about 1.2 million pregnant or breastfeeding women are expected to suffer from extreme malnutrition in 2021.

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