SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Saudi-backed Yemeni troops and fighters have driven Shiite rebels out of two major neighborhoods in the southern port city of Aden, Thursday, prompting street celebrations by residents after weeks of fierce fighting.
Residents said armored vehicles and troops have deployed in the neighborhoods of Crater and Mualla, where fighting had intensified earlier as part of an offensive to regain control of the port city from the Shiite rebels and allied forces.
"Today we are free," Aseel Mohsen, a resident of Mualla said by telephone, as celebratory gunfire broke out in the background. She said she had spent the last couple of days mostly holed up with 30 other people in the basement of their apartment building where they were taking cover from the intense fighting.
"We can now go down and prepare and shop for Eid," Mohsen said, in reference to the feast that follows Islam's holy month of Ramadan, which ends Thursday in most of the Muslim world.
A U.N. brokered truce, which had largely failed to hold, is expected to end with the conclusion of the holy month of Ramadan. The truce was intended to put an end to months of punishing fighting in the war-torn impoverished Gulf nation and allow for the dispersing of much-needed humanitarian aid.
Fierce fighting in Aden broke out in March as empowered Iran-allied Shiite rebels expanded their bid for power from the Yemeni capital Sanaa, which they overran in September. The rebels have allied with several military units loyal to Yemen's former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
The offensive, closely coordinated with the Saudi-led coalition, is a serious blow to the Shiite rebels, who have taken control of several provinces in Yemen, and driven the country's internationally-recognized president into exile. President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi has been living in Saudi Arabia since March. The rebels, and allied forces, remain in control of the capital and other provinces.
Hadi, in a recorded speech aired on TV, congratulated the troops and fighters for regaining control of parts of Aden.
"Aden will be the key to salvation for our people and our case," Hadi said. "From Aden, we will regain Yemen."
Fighting intensified Thursday in Aden as Saudi-backed troops forced the rebels out of neighborhoods they control.
Meanwhile, the rebels, known as Houthis, fired Katyusha rockets that landed in the vicinity of the airport early Thursday, killing three anti-rebel fighters, according to a government official.
They also fired at least five rockets at the city's refinery, military officials said.
The government official said the Saudi-trained Yemeni troops took control of the Crater neighborhood, the commercial hub of Aden that houses a presidential palace, and neighboring Mualla. He said armored vehicles were roaming the streets of the neighborhoods to ensure it has been cleared of rebels, and installing checkpoints manned by local militias.
The Saudi-backed troops and fighters, along with Saudi-led coalition airstrikes, had pushed the rebels out of the city's airport Tuesday. It was at the outset of an offensive led by troops trained in Saudi Arabia and planned for over a month, the government official said, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to discuss the ongoing fighting.
Footage aired on TV showed civilians clearing the runway of the Aden airport as troops secured it.
A senior military official said more than 40 Houthis and allied fighters have surrendered to the troops. Through loudspeakers, military officials urged rebel fighters to hand themselves in. The troops are poised to enter the area that houses the presidential palace, the last remaining spot in Crater where rebels and allied forces appear to be holding on, the official and witnesses said.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.
An Aden resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, said he saw some local militia fighters throw a rebel-allied fighter from the roof of a building.
Speaking to the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya Al-Hadath TV, Brig. Gen. Ahmed al-Asiri, the Saudi-led coalition's spokesman, praised the "heroic efforts" of Yemeni fighters, referring to the offensive as "the Golden Arrow."
Al-Asiri said the operation has been successful so far because of "the element of surprise" and added, "We need to have patience and perseverance now."
In a statement to the Houthi-controlled Saba news agency, a spokesman said the rebels are fighting back, and are advancing in a neighborhood northwest of the airport.