ADEN (Reuters) - Fighters loyal to Yemen’s deposed president Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, backed by Saudi-led air strikes, battled Houthi forces inside the country’s largest military base on Monday, pro-Hadi commanders said.
They said the recapture of the al-Anad base would open the road north to the city of Taiz, where Iranian-allied Houthi militias have been locked in combat with local fighters siding with Hadi.
It would also mark another significant gain for the Hadi loyalists after they drove the Houthis from the southern port of Aden in July following months on the defensive.
Hadi remains in Saudi Arabia, to where he fled in March as the Houthis closed in on his refuge in Aden. The Houthis broke out of their northern strongholds and seized control of the capital Sanaa in September, plunging Yemen into another bout of conflict.
Pro-Hadi fighters reached by telephone said heavy clashes were taking place on Monday on the western side of the military airport inside the al-Anad base, which covers an area of 40 square km (15 square miles).
A pro-Hadi television station said they had captured the military airport. Dozens of Houthi fighters were killed and hundreds were fleeing, it said.
The Houthi-run Saba news agency said Saudi-led air raids had repeatedly struck the military base.
The loyalist commanders said their fighters were making steady advances in the south and west of the base and expected to win full control soon.
The base has been under siege by the Southern Resistance, an alliance of southern groups including secessionists seeking an independent south Yemen.
The assault on al-Anad began after new weapons, including armored vehicles that had been supplied by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, arrived to reinforce fighters who had been besieging the base for weeks.
Witnesses said they saw dozens of new armored vehicles heading in two separate columns in the morning toward al-Anad.
The Houthis say their campaign is a revolt against corruption and an attempt to root out the influence of al Qaeda in Yemen.
Saudi Arabia, which has weighed in with support for Hadi, says the conflict is a proxy war in Iran’s efforts to expand its influence in the region.
The conflict has caused international concern due to Yemen’s proximity to Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter, and because Islamist militants have been operating from there. The United States was heavily involved in anti-militant operations until the Houthi revolt forced its personnel to leave.
Yemeni Vice President Khaled Bahah arrived in Aden on Saturday, the most senior official from the exiled government to visit since the Houthi retreat.
Meanwhile Yemen’s former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, a Houthi ally, said he wanted Hadi tried for treason for enlisting Saudi help in the conflict.
“The fleeing Hadi committed high treason when he summoned Saudi and foreign intervention... He must be tried, must be transferred to the International Criminal Court for the crimes he committed, and this is what we are seeking.” Saleh said in remarks published on Monday by the Huffington Post website,
Army units loyal to Saleh have fought alongside the Zaydi Shi‘ite Houthis throughout the conflict.
Reporting by Mohammed Mukhashaf, Writing by Sami Aboudi, Editing by Angus MacSwan