Houthi forces pulled back from a central Aden district on Friday and warplanes from a Saudi-led coalition dropped weapons and medical aid to fighters defending the southern Yemeni city, a last symbolic foothold of the country’s absent president.
The Shi’ite Houthi fighters and their allies withdrew from Crater neighbourhood as well as one of Aden’s presidential residences which they seized a day earlier, residents and a local official said.
Their withdrawal followed overnight clashes and an air strike on the presidential palace at Ma’ashiq, overlooking Crater. At least one Houthi tank was destroyed and another taken over by President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s loyalists, they said.
Saudi Arabia’s military intervention is the latest front in the Sunni Muslim kingdom’s widening contest with Shi’ite Iran for power in the region, a proxy struggle also playing out in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.
The Iranian-allied Houthis, fighting alongside soldiers loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, emerged as the strongest force in Yemen after they took over the capital Sanaa in September.
Last month they advanced on Aden, where Hadi had retreated, prompting the response from Riyadh. Nine days of Saudi-led air strikes have destroyed much of their equipment and cut off any chance of outside reinforcement, but failed to halt their march on the port city.
The fighting has brought civil war to the Arabian Peninsula’s poorest country, already plagued by separatism, tribal conflict, sectarian violence and an insurgency by al Qaeda militants targeted by U.S. drones.
Local militia forces said they killed ten Houthis during the fighting which pushed the Shi’ite movement out of Crater. They also said Houthis killed two medics and two patients when they opened fire on an ambulance ferrying casualties from Aden’s peninsula to hospital on the mainland.
Early on Friday warplanes from the Saudi-led coalition dropped crates of weapons and medical supplies by parachute over Tawahi, a district on the far end of the Aden peninsula which is still held by Hadi loyalists, fighters told Reuters.
The crates included light weapons, telecommunications equipment and rocket-propelled grenades, they said. The pro-Hadi newspaper Aden al-Ghad published pictures of at least one wooden crate attached to a parachute, which it said had landed in Aden. Local men were seen loading the crates onto pickup trucks.
Hadi fled Aden last week and has watched from neighbouring Saudi Arabia while the vestiges of his authority on the ground have eroded as the Houthis advanced.
The coalition, trying to reassert Hadi’s standing before any political settlement, has said that sending ground troops into Yemen remains an option.
The fighting has forced Washington to evacuate personnel from the country, a main battlefield in its drone war against al Qaeda – although a U.S. military officer said he believed Al Qaeda’s Yemen wing was now more focused on addressing the Houthi offensive than plotting attacks abroad.
Suspected al Qaeda fighters stormed a military base in the port town of Mukalla, killing at least five soldiers and ransacking its ammunition store, residents said.
The attack came a day after the militants broke into Mukalla jail and freed scores of prisoners including a prominent local al Qaeda leader, identified by officials as Khaled Batarfi.
The Sunni Islamist al Qaeda fighters are viscerally opposed to the Houthis, who are drawn from a Zaidi Shi’ite minority.
Former ruler Saleh is a member of the Zaidi sect who fought to crush the Houthis as president but has now allied himself with them. Street protests in 2011 linked to wider Arab uprisings forced him to step down in favour of Hadi.
The civil war in Yemen has forced many countries to evacuate their citizens. China, which had already pulled its nationals out of Yemen, sent a frigate on Thursday to rescue 255 people from 10 different countries.
This was the first time that China’s military has helped other countries evacuate their people during an international crisis.