(Arab News)ADEN: Yemeni forces have made major advances into Houthi-held areas in Hodeidah province in recent days, spurred on by an unlikely new ally.
Brig. Gen. Tareq Saleh, the nephew of the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, and commander of the powerful Republican Guards, is leading his troops in the fierce fighting toward Yemen’s largest port.
Ali Abdullah Saleh stepped down as president after the Arab Spring protests in 2011 but sided with the Houthis when they seized control of the capital in 2014 from the internationally recognized government. He was followed by sections of the military still loyal to him, including the elite Republican Guards.
Last summer, the Saleh-Houthi alliance crumbled and the two parties turned their guns on each other. Ali Abdullah Saleh was killed by Houthi rocket fire in December and Tareq fled the Houthi territory, eventually to Aden before rebuilding his brigades in Mooch, less than 200km south of Hodeidah.
Now he is leading his fighters in the offensive against the Houthis on the west coast where they have made rapid gains in the past week.
Tareq Saleh’s forces are fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with other sections of the Yemeni military and groups wanting to defeat the Iran-backed Houthis.
Ammar Aqeel, a fighter with the Republican Guards involved in the battles, told Arab News they are focused on reaching Hodeidah’s port.
“Brig. Gen. Tareq Saleh is leading the battles on the ground and every day we liberate new areas,” he said.
The fighter said they were currently in Al-Tohaita district and he was sure that during the coming days they would advance in new areas.
He said that since joining the fighting they had pushed the front line from the border between Taiz and Hodeidah provinces deep into Hodeidah itself.
He said that when the forces reached the port in Hodeidah, it would be easy to receive reinforcements from the sea.
The Yemeni army also said strong gains had been made against the Houthis in Hodeidah, with the capture of Al-Zaraniq military camp and the surrounding areas.
Local reports suggested that the army was less than 20km away from Hodiedah city.
Abdulmalek Al-Houthi, the militia’s leader, reportedly tried to assure his followers that the losses in Hodeidah were small.
A spokesman for Yemen’s army, Sadeq Dawaid, told Sky News Arabia that after liberating Houthi areas, the army was then faced with heavily mined land which it had to clear.
“Houthis have an obsession with planting land mines. They do it randomly, often injuring and killing their own forces in the process,” Dawaid said.
Aqeel also said the Houthis had laid as many mines as possible to slow their progress.
He said many new fighters were joining Tareq Saleh’s forces, some of whom fled from the Houthi-controlled areas in the north and others from government-held territory.
Tareq Saleh’s defection and new role battling the Houthis has been criticized by some pro-government groups unwilling to forgive his military support for the Houthis.
Aqeel believes, however, that the new advances on the country’s west coast were evidence that the commander is now loyal to President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and the Saudi-led coalition.
“We do not care about criticism, we are focusing on advances toward Hodeidah to prove these accusations are wrong.”
Abdulkareem Al-Madi, a political analyst and a leader of the General People’s Congress, Saleh’s party, said the liberation of Hodeidah is going according to a perfect plan, which needs time to be implemented.
“There are some people wanting to hurry the liberation of Hodeidah and they are not aware that the pro-government forces do not attack randomly, but they attack specific targets to avoid targeting civilians.”
Al-Madi said Tareq Saleh’s forces include fighters from all of Yemen’s provinces and from different military units.
He said more fighters were preparing to join the battle.
He also said they were coordinating with all the other groups of the pro-government forces.