By SAMY MAGDY
MARIB CITY, Yemen (AP) – The two fighters stand side by side on a mountain, with a clear view below the enemy’s position. They are part of the last lines of defense between the last government stronghold in northern Yemen and the Houthi rebels who are trying to capture it.
Hassan Saleh and his younger brother Saeed, both in their early 20s, fight alongside other government fighters and a tribal member outside the oil-rich town of Marib, against the months-long offensive by Iranian-backed rebels. They say they need more weapons to repel the attackers.
“We need sniper rifles,” said Hassan, who was taking up a position in a sandbag trench in the mountainous Kassara region. All most battalions have are old Kalashnikovs and machine guns mounted on the backs of pickup trucks.
It is the most active front line in Yemen’s nearly 7-year civil war, where a constant stream of fighters from both sides are being killed or wounded every day, even as international pressure to put end of the war intensifies. Amid another round of peace talks, this time led by Oman, the desert town of Marib remains the melting pot of one of the world’s most stuck-on conflicts.
The Houthis have been trying for years to take Marib to complete their control over the northern half of Yemen. But since February, they have waged an intensified offensive on multiple fronts, while hitting the residential city center with missiles and drones loaded with explosives, killing and injuring dozens of civilians.
So far, the rebels have made only gradual progress, advancing slowly across the desert plain, due to Saudi airstrikes that are causing heavy casualties in their ranks. The government and medical authorities in Marib estimate that thousands of fighters have been killed or injured, most of them rebels, since February. In the Houthi-held capital Sana’a, mass funerals and reports of the deaths of soldiers, including some children, indicate how costly the battle has been, although the Houthis do not release the official death toll.
The grueling battle over the remote city seems linked to the slow efforts for peace. The Houthis appear to be hoping that Marib’s capture will give them the upper hand in the talks. Meanwhile, government officials complain that American and international mistrust of fueling the interminable war is preventing them from obtaining the weapons they need to win in Marib.
The United States is pressuring the Saudi-led coalition that supports the government not to provide more weapons lest they fall into the hands of militants amid concerns over ” transplants and government incompetence, âa Yemeni official told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity. because he was not authorized to brief journalists.
“We are at a crossroads,” said the governor of Marib province, Sheikh Sultan al-Aradah, saying that weapons are needed to tip the scales in Marib. “The world has reservations about arming Yemen at this time.”
An AP crew have traveled to the city across Saudi Arabia in recent weeks on a government-sponsored trip.
Marib, some 115 kilometers (70 miles) east of Sana’a, on the edge of Yemen’s great deserts, is a strategic gateway between the central highlands and the southern and eastern provinces. It is also home to oil and gas fields in which international companies, including Exxon Mobil Corp. and Total SA, have interests. Its natural gas bottling plant produces cooking gas for the nation of 29 million people. Its power plant once provided 40% of Yemen’s electricity.
Its relative stability over the past years has made it a refuge for those fleeing other fronts of the war. The region, which had a population of 400,000 before the war, is now home to some 2.2 million displaced people, many of them crowded into camps, according to official statistics.
The streets of the city are lively during the day with taxis and 4×4 vehicles belonging to the security forces. At night, men frequent restaurants and cafes or congregate in homes, chewing qat leaves for a stimulating effect. There is little attention paid to the fighting just outside of their city.
But posters of fallen commanders and troops lining the roads serve as a reminder. The town’s cemetery was enlarged to accommodate the increased death toll.
âWe bury between 10 and 15 people every day, most of them martyrs of war,â said Mohammed Saeed Nasser, a cemetery keeper.
The main hospital in Marib has been swamped with dozens of wounded fighters every day for months, its director, Dr Mohamed Abdo al-Qubati, said. In an intensive care unit, there were 10 patients, all but one wounded combatant.
In one of the beds, Ali Saad, 22, lay partially paralyzed. He was shot dead by a frontline Houthi sniper on June 18.
Saad has been fighting in government forces since 2017. Meanwhile, he and his family fled their home in southwestern Dhamar province as the war escalated. He was later captured and held for a year in a Houthi prison until his release during a prisoner exchange in October.
“I suffered a lot in captivity, I was tortured physically and mentally,” he said. âIt gave us a glimpse of what the Houthis really were. We came out with a stronger and indescribable will to fight them.â His father and one of his three brothers were also injured on Marib’s forehead. earlier this year.
The civil war in Yemen began in 2014 when the Houthis took Sanaa and much of the north, forcing the government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi to flee.
The Saudi-led coalition, backed at the time by the United States, went to war in an attempt to bring Hadi back to power. Amid the relentless air campaign and fighting on the ground, the war killed more than 130,000 people and created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. It has also created smaller parallel conflicts, between militants and different factions inside the country.
After years of criticism of civilian casualties in airstrikes, the administration of US President Joe Biden withdrew its support for the coalition’s campaign in Yemen in February.
The Yemeni government and military officials say the move, along with Biden’s removal of the Houthis from the US terrorist list, emboldened the rebels in Marib.
“The Houthis seem to calculate that if they win in Marib, they will have won the war for northern Yemen while humiliating the internationally recognized president,” said Peter Salisbury, Yemen expert at the International Crisis Group. “It is a considerable price for their side, because it would also allow them to dictate the terms of the end of the war.”
US State Department spokesman Ned Price said on Thursday that the administration was “beyond fed up” with the Houthis and “horrified by the repeated attacks on Marib.” He denounced the rebels for having continued the offensive despite a “serious (peace) proposal before them”.
An Omani delegation held talks in Sana’a with Houthi leaders, including the group’s religious and military leader, Abdel-Malek al-Houthi. A Saudi diplomat, meanwhile, said efforts were underway, including direct talks between the Saudis and the Houthis since 2019, to find common ground. He spoke on condition of anonymity in accordance with the regulations.
A Houthi spokesperson did not respond to calls and messages seeking comment.
Rebels want the reopening of Sana’a International Airport, a vital link for Yemen to the outside world which has not seen regular commercial flights since 2015, and the lifting of restrictions on the vital port of Hodeidah on the sea Red, held by the Houthis.
Salisbury said negotiations were stuck on what comes first. The Houthis, he said, want an autonomous deal on the airport and Hodeidah before negotiating a ceasefire. Saudi Arabia and the Yemeni government want a comprehensive deal on all of these issues.
“Until the gap can be closed, I would expect Marib’s offensive to continue,” he said.
AP photographer Nariman el-Mofty contributed to this report.