ADEN - Yemeni pro-government forces recaptured the presidential palace in Aden Wednesday and a Saudi military plane landed in the war-scarred southern city following recent territorial losses by Iran-backed rebels.
The arrival of reinforcements freshly trained and heavily armed by the Saudi-led coalition has helped forces loyal to exiled President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi to retake most of Aden after four months of fierce fighting.
Thirty rebels were killed in the battle for the Al-Maashiq hilltop palace, where Hadi had taken refuge before fleeing to Saudi Arabia in March, a source in the pro-government Popular Resistance militia said.
Underscoring the recent advances by the pro-Hadi forces, a Saudi military plane touched down Wednesday in the city’s newly reopened airport.
The plane, carrying relief aid, will be followed by others in the coming days, according to transport minister Badr Basalma, one of two ministers who returned to the city after it was declared “liberated” by the exiled government on Friday.
“This is the beginning of operations at the airport,” Basalma told reporters at the site, which Saudi-backed loyalists recaptured last week following fierce clashes with the Huthi rebels and their allies.
On Tuesday, a UN ship docked in Aden carrying much-needed relief supplies, the first UN vessel to reach the city in four months. Another ship sent by the UAE also delivered medical aid.
Saudi Colonel Ali Abu Dahesh, who flew in on the military plane, said an “air link with Yemen will be opened to deliver relief supplies”. Basalma told journalists on Monday that a UAE technical team had arrived to repair the tower and passenger terminal at Aden international airport, heavily damaged in clashes.
The airport closed in late March, when rebels advanced on the city, where Hadi took refuge after escaping house arrest under the Huthis in the capital Sanaa, which is still in rebel hands.
The Huthis and allied forces loyal to ousted president Ali Abdullah Saleh overran Sanaa in September, and then advanced into several other regions.
Over the past week there has been a shift in the balance on the ground in Aden in favour of pro-Hadi forces, which had previously struggled to halt the advance of better-equipped rebels. “The freshly trained troops, equipped with modern weapons, triggered this shift,” Yemeni analyst Majed al-Mathhadi said.
A force of about 1,500 former southern Yemeni soldiers have arrived in the city after being trained in Saudi Arabia, he said, adding that the heavy weapons they brought with them had made a huge difference.
“The light weapons that the (southern Popular) Resistance had were not enough to make a change on the ground... They needed heavy weapons like the ones that were sent,” he said.
Footage from Aden has shown pro-Hadi forces using new armoured vehicles with mounted machine guns.
Military sources have said officers from the coalition are in Aden coordinating operations.
But to secure the city, loyalists need to push the rebels out of the neighbouring provinces of Lahj and Abyan, according to Mathhadi.
Pro-government forces backed by heavy air power have set their sight on Al-Anad airbase in Lahj, which is held by the rebels. The conflict has had a devastating effect on the Yemeni people.
More than 21.1 million people - over 80 percent of Yemen’s population - need aid, with 13 million facing food shortages, according to the United Nations. It says the conflict has killed more than 3,640 people, around half of them civilians, since late March.
A humanitarian ceasefire declared by the UN earlier this month failed to take hold. The world body warned at the time that the impoverished country was just “one step away from famine”.