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78 killed as fighting intensifies for Yemen stronghold Marib

Nearly 80 Yemen rebels and pro-government troops have been killed as fighting intensifies for the northern city of Marib, officials said Wednesday, nearly seven years into a war that has triggered a major humanitarian crisis.

Scores of rebels were killed in airstrikes after they renewed their attempt to capture the strategic city, the internationally recognised government’s last outpost in the north, according to loyalists.

“Sixty Huthi rebels were killed — most of them in air strikes conducted in the last 24 hours — while 18 pro-government troops were killed and dozens injured in clashes over the past 48 hours,” a government military official said.

The figures were confirmed by other military sources, while the rebels rarely report casualty numbers.

Battles between Yemen’s government, which is backed by a Saudi-led military coalition, and the Iran-allied Huthi rebels have intensified in recent days in Marib province, according to the military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The fighting was concentrated in the north and west of the governorate.

The official said air strikes had intensified. The rebels also reported early on Wednesday that the coalition had carried out at least 30 such strikes across Marib province.

“The Huthis launched last night a military offensive that continued into the early hours of Wednesday morning,” the pro-government official said, adding loyalist troops were able to repel the insurgents despite a small advance on the northern front.

– ‘Dangerous escalation’ –

The latest fighting comes nearly seven years after the fall of Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, to the rebels in September 2014, the start of a grinding war that has killed tens of thousands of people and displaced millions.

The war has left some 80 percent of Yemenis dependent on aid, in what the UN calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

The renewal of clashes for Marib also coincides with the arrival of Hans Grundberg, the new United Nations envoy for Yemen, who took up his duties this week.

Yemeni Information Minister Mouammar al-Eryani Tuesday called the Huthis’ attacks on Marib a “dangerous escalation”, according to the official Saba news agency.

“It confirms once again the terrorist Huthi militia’s defiance of the international community… and the rebels aims to undermine (peace) efforts and intensify conflict in Yemen and the region no matter the costs,” he said.

In February, the Huthis escalated their efforts to seize Marib in fighting that has killed hundreds on both sides.

Control of the oil-rich region would strengthen the Huthis’ bargaining position in peace talks.

As well as the bloody offensive in Marib, the Huthis have also stepped up drone and missile strikes on Saudi targets.

Two children were hurt and 14 homes damaged as Saudi forces intercepted ballistic missiles fired across the border by Yemeni rebels on Saturday.

And four days earlier, a drone hit Saudi’s Abha International Airport in the south, wounding eight people and damaging a civilian plane.

While the UN and Washington are pushing for an end to the war, the Huthis have demanded the re-opening of Sanaa airport, closed under a Saudi blockade since 2016, before any ceasefire or negotiations.