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Yemen loyalists take back another province from rebels

Troops loyal to exiled Yemeni leader Hadi advance further, recapturing areas from the Houthi militias
Yemeni pro-government forces backed by a Saudi-led coalition approach Loder, the last rebel-held town in the southern Abyan province, on 10 August 2015 (AFP)

Forces loyal to Yemen's exiled government retook a fifth southern province Saturday, extending recent gains against the Houthi militias and their allies who still control the capital.

The forces backing exiled President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi have been aided by troops and materiel from Yemen's wealthy Gulf neighbours, with Saudi-led coalition warplanes pounding rebel positions.

The rebels handed over Shabwa to government forces and withdrew after being promised a safe route out of the province, a military official told AFP. 

Other sources confirmed the pull-out. 

"The province was handed over" to the Southern Movement, a secessionist group whose fighters have been battling with pro-Hadi forces, said Salem al-Awlaqi, a political activist in Shabwa, a large province southeast of Sanaa. 

Officials said the pro-rebel governor of Shabwa, which has substantial oil reserves, had fled as pro-Hadi forces prepared to enter the province.

They also accused the Houthis of booby-trapping government buildings before fleeing, as they had done in other provinces.

As the Houthis began entering neighbouring Baida province, Saudi-led coalition warplanes hit their convoys, destroying 13 military vehicles and leaving dead and wounded, military officials said.

The sources could not immediately provide a casualty toll, and the rebels rarely acknowledge their losses.

Pro-government forces in the south launched an offensive last month against the pro-Houthi militias, forcing them out of main southern city Aden. 

They subsequently retook the southwestern adjoining provinces of Daleh, Lahj and Abyan. 

The advance is now heading towards Yemen's third city Taiz, southwest of Sanaa, which analysts regard as the gateway to the capital that has been under full Houthi control since January. 

According to a pro-government website, pro-Hadi forces have already retaken several facilities from rebels in Taiz, including police and civil defence headquarters. Local residents also told AFP that clashes were ongoing. 

In a telephone call, Hadi reassured the 35th Brigade commander in the city Thursday that "Taiz is on its way to being liberated and support will soon reach it". 

After seizing Sanaa unopposed, the Houthis advanced on Aden in March, prompting intervention from the coalition aimed at restoring Hadi to power.

Troops loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh also joined in the fighting, allying themselves with the Houthis. 

The conflict has cost nearly 4,300 lives since March, half of them civilians, according to UN figures, while 80 percent of Yemen's 21 million people need aid and protection.

Aid workers in the south told AFP aid groups from Saudi Arabia, the UAE and beyond began distributing much-needed food and other supplies to residents in Aden and nearby areas.

A Saudi plane carrying 10 tonnes of medical aid landed at Aden on Saturday, the official SPA news agency reported, adding that this was the seventh aid flight to the city since July.

Since the oil-rich kingdom announced the forming of the anti-rebel coalition, Saudi Arabia has pledged $540 million in aid to Yemen. However, residents in northern Yemen and the capital have complained that the aid is not getting to areas under Houthi control. 

The five provinces so far retaken by pro-government troops - along with Mahra and Hadramawt which the Houthis never entered - comprise the formerly independent South Yemen. It was its own state from the end of British colonial rule in 1967 until its union with the north in 1990.

A secession attempt four years later sparked a brief civil war that ended with northern forces occupying the region.

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