Yemeni loyalist forces recaptured a southern provincial capital from Shiite rebels and their allies Sunday as well as a coastal town as they pressed an advance from second city Aden.
Zinjibar, capital of Abyan province, had been held by troops of the renegade 15th Brigade which remains loyal to ousted strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh who is allied with the Huthi rebels.
Troops entered Zinjibar, some 50 kilometres (30 miles) east of Aden, after overrunning the brigade’s barracks with support from Saudi-led coalition air strikes, military sources said.
They deployed tanks to secure the city and then also retook the coastal town of Shaqra with “little resistance” from rebel forces, a military source said.
Zinjibar residents forced out by fighting that devastated their city returned on Sunday to take stock of the damage, a relief official said.
But many, including loyalist fighters, lost their lives to mines planted by the rebels before they withdrew.
At least 19 people were killed and 163 wounded on Saturday and Sunday in and around Zinjibar, Aden health chief Al-Khader Laswar told AFP.
Similar explosions in Aden have reportedly killed dozens of civilians and wounded hundreds.
Zinjibar is the third southern provincial capital from which the rebels have been driven out since loyalists secured Aden in mid-July and Lahj provincial capital Huta on August 4.
– Boost to loyalists –
Military sources said the southern province of Daleh was also now controlled by so-called Popular Resistance fighters loyal to exiled President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi.
Aden was Hadi’s last refuge before he fled into exile in neighbouring Saudi Arabia in March.
Riyadh has since led a bombing campaign and air and sea blockade against the Iran-backed rebels and their allies in a bid to restore his authority.
It has also provided training and equipment to loyalist forces, and earlier this month reportedly deployed hundreds of ground troops to Aden.
The capture of Zinjibar came three days after tribal and military sources said Saudi Arabia sent tanks, armoured vehicles and personnel carriers to back the loyalist forces.
Hundreds of Yemeni soldiers trained in the oil-rich kingdom were also sent to bolster Hadi’s forces, the sources said on Thursday.
Retaking Zinjibar is expected to strengthen the position of loyalist forces as they expand their zone of control in southern Yemen and could pave the way for an attempt to pursue rebels further north.
The Huthis control the capital Sanaa, which they seized last year, and large swathes of the country including the remote north where their mountain stronghold of Saada is located.
– ICRC chief in Sanaa –
On Sunday, Huthi-linked gunmen abducted 10 members of the Islamist Al-Islah party in the city, including a former government minister and women, relatives said.
Their claims came as the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross visited the Old City of Sanaa, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
ICRC Peter Maurer arrived in Sanaa on Saturday on a three-day mission.
After touring damaged buildings and a hospital, Maurer told reporters he had come to Yemen for a “view on the impact of the recent warfare”.
Sanaa’s Old City has been inhabited for more than 2,500 years and was a major centre for the propagation of Islam, boasting more than 100 mosques, 14 public baths and more than 6,000 pre-11th century houses.
Many of its ancient storeyed houses that rise like modern-day skyscrapers were damaged in fighting and by Saudi-led air strikes, leaving residents homeless.
“It’s an illustration of just one element of how people are affected by the warfare,” Maurer said.
The ICRC has said Maurer would meet leading officials, without identifying them. Rebel officials said he would meet Huthi leaders and their allies.
The United Nations says that nearly 4,000 people have been killed since March, half of them civilians, and 80 percent of Yemen’s 21 million people need aid and protection.
The ICRC says 1.3 million Yemenis have been displaced by the conflict.