By Noah Browning
DUBAI (Reuters) - Loyalist Yemeni troops and Gulf Arab forces on Thursday seized control of the Arabian side of the strategic Bab al-Mandab Strait linking the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden from Houthi fighters, a spokesman for the Gulf-backed government said.
Six months of war in Yemen has raised fears for the security of oil supplies through Bab al-Mandab, a main thoroughfare for vessels heading for the United States or Europe from Asia or the Gulf. Its western shore is controlled by Djibouti and Eritrea.
Residents on the Yemeni side of Bab al-Mandab reported air strikes and shelling by warships in support of a ground thrust, but could not immediately confirm that the Iranian-allied Houthis had lost the eastern shore of the strait.
"In a large-scale military operation launched today, Yemeni government, resistance and coalition forces liberated the Bab al-Mandab Strait and Mayun island with the goal of safeguarding this key sea route," Rajeh Badi told Reuters by telephone from the southern port city of Aden, 170 km (105 miles) to the east.
Yemeni Prime Minister Khaled Bahah, who returned to Aden in mid-September after months of exile in Saudi Arabia, later said on his Twitter account:
"On this day, with support from the armed militias, we were victorious. Mayun and Bab al-Mandab, before them Marib, and soon, God willing, Taiz and the rest of the cities."
In 2013, more than 3.4 million barrels of oil per day passed through the 20 km (12 mile) wide Bab al-Mandab, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
A Houthi spokesman said the Saudi-led coalition and its allies had provoked a battle for the strait in a "blatant escalation" of the country's civil war.
"[The attack] aims to arouse concern in the international community over the safety of the shipping lane," a spokesman for the media office of Houthi leader Abdel-Malek Badruddin al-Houthi said on Facebook.
The Saudi-led Arab coalition intervened in the war in March to try to restore Yemen's government after it was forced into exile by the Houthis, and contain what Gulf states see as Iran's growing influence in their backyard.
KEY BRIDGE DESTROYED
The Houthi movement denies receiving any support from Iran and has described its seizure of large parts of Yemen including the capital Sanaa as a nationwide revolution against corrupt officials in the thrall to the West.
Ground fighting and coalition air strikes have killed more than 5,400 people, according to the United Nations.
The coalition, which includes Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, ousted the Houthis from Aden in July and has made some advances in oil-producing Marib province, east of Sanaa. More than 150 coalition troops have been killed since March, but the Gulf-backed Yemeni government has returned to Aden.
The UAE said on Thursday that one of its soldiers had died from wounds sustained in Yemen in August, and Saudi Arabia said a border guard had been killed in Jizan province when his patrol was fired on from inside Yemen.
In western Yemen, residents said coalition air strikes had destroyed a bridge on the main road linking Sanaa and Hodeidah, effectively cutting the capital off from Yemen's main Red Sea port.
Pro-coalition Yemeni media said the destruction of the Aqd Asfara bridge, 20 km (12 miles) west of Sanaa, was part of the Gulf Arab alliance's efforts to sever supply routes to the Houthis ahead of a ground advance on the capital.
However, the move is also likely to aggravate a humanitarian crisis already afflicting most of the country.
(Additional reporting by Mohammed Ghobari in Sanaa and Ahmed Tolba in Cairo; Writing by Sami Aboudi and Raissa Kasolowsky; Editing by Mark Heinrich)