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Yemeni forces move to break Houthi siege of Taiz

Backed by Saudi-led air strikes, pro-government forces are attacking Houthis on several fronts
Taiz has been fought over by Houthi rebels and government loyalists (AFP)

TAIZ, Yemen – Forces loyal to Yemen's internationally recognised President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi have launched an operation to break the Houthi siege of the city of Taiz, under the cover of Saudi-led air strikes.

The campaign began on Thursday, with pro-government forces attacking the Houthis on several fronts in Taiz province and advancing in some areas, according to military sources.

Nabil al-Adimi, one of the leaders of the pro-government fighters, said his forces attacked Houthis on the eastern front of the city, prompting them to flee the area. Still, sniper fire and landmines prevented his soldiers from advancing any farther, Adimi said.

"The Houthis planted landmines everywhere in Taiz ... when we attacked them, they fled the area and left hundreds of landmines and some snipers on the tops of hills, so we are advancing very slowly," Adimi told Middle East Eye.

"This does not mean we will not advance," he said. "We are advancing amid all obstacles and after we pass through the fields of landmines, we will advance more easily."

The Houthis planted landmines everywhere in Taiz

- Nabil al-Adimi, pro-government military commander

He said Saudi-led air strikes are targeting Houthi snipers and their military vehicles, which has helped the pro-Hadi fighters advance.

"The air strikes are playing a main role in this campaign and they accompany the army and the Popular Resistance on all fronts. There were more than 20 air strikes on Thursday alone and more than that today," Adimi said.

The purpose of this campaign is to break the three-year siege of Taiz city, and the pro-Hadi forces will not stop until they do so, according to Adimi.

The battles are ongoing in the eastern and northern fronts, but the fiercest clashes are on the western front, where pro-government forces are trying to break the siege from the direction of Hodeidah province.

A field commander on the western front spoke to MEE on condition of anonymity, saying that all pro-Hadi forces were united in the battle.

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"All groups of the resistance are participating in this campaign and we get instructions from one leadership ... so I trust that we can liberate large parts of Taiz this time."

The commander told MEE that he doesn't have a timeframe for when the siege will end, but he does think that his forces will break it eventually.

"We advanced in the al-Robaie area and we are still trying to take it over. I can say that in the coming days we can make some good advances," he said.

Meanwhile, pro-government forces took the area of al-Aneen in the Jabal Habashi district, a rural area about 20km west of Taiz city.

The Saudi-led coalition sent armoured vehicles, tanks and ammunition to Taiz, designed to help the forces advance against the Houthis, according to the commander. The commander said their greatest need is more minesweepers to help clear landmines.

The clashes are continuing across the different fronts in Taiz. Saba news agency, which is operated under Hadi's government, said 53 Houthi fighters have been killed since the offensive began on Thursday but did not disclose the number of casualties among pro-government forces.

New governor, new ambitions

The campaign was launched after the new governor of Taiz, Ameen Ahmed Mahmood, arrived in Aden from Saudi Arabia on Thursday, and announced the new operation to break the siege.  

"The nightmare of the Houthi terrorism is on its way to the dung heap of history," the governor said.

"Your national army has decided to launch a large military campaign, backed by the Saudi coalition, to liberate our province from the Houthis.

"I call on the residents in the Houthi-controlled areas to support their brothers in the national army and the Popular Resistance and to salvage their dignity and freedom," he said.

The nightmare of the Houthi terrorism is on its way to the dung heap of history

- Ameen Ahmed Mahmood, Taiz governor

Pro-government forces, backed by Saudi-led air strikes, partially broke the Houthi siege on Taiz's southwestern front in August 2016, after more than a year and a half and are now trying to finish the task from the other directions.

Ahmed al-Azazi, a journalist in Taiz, said the city's liberation is a priority for the new governor.  

"The new governor considers liberation a priority, so he organised this military campaign to liberate Taiz. I think this is a good step by the governor, but he should take into consideration its consequences, as there will be new victims, casualties and other costs," he told MEE.

In the past year, there have been several disputes between the different factions of the Popular Resistance in Taiz province, which has caused scepticism among Taiz residents that any united front would be able to break the siege.  

But when residents see these groups fighting shoulder to shoulder to liberate their city, they feel optimistic, the journalist said.

"I am so happy to see all groups of the resistance fight under the leadership of the Taiz military axis, and they seem to have forgotten all the disputes among them," Azazi said.  

Dreams of breaking the siege

While Taiz's residents have been living under harrowing siege conditions for the past three years, the latest military campaign has left civilians fearful in light of fresh rounds of clashes and air strikes, as well as Houthi shelling.  

Civilians told MEE that they fear death, and those living near conflict zones have fled to relatively safer areas or have attempted to leave the city altogether.  

Zuhair Abdul Aleem, a resident in the al-Thawra area of the city, said that some of his neighbours have fled their homes, while others have remained indoors.

"All of us hope to see Taiz liberated, but I am afraid that even after all this terror and casualties, the forces cannot liberate our city," Abdul Aleem told MEE.

"I hope this time the pro-government forces can liberate the city and break the siege as we cannot bear further battles inside it."

Emad Sultan, a Taiz resident who works as a driver, was not so sure.

"Even if the pro-government forces advance towards the north or the west, they will arrive at Houthi-controlled areas and the Houthis will impose the siege from another direction. I am not optimistic." 

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