ADEN, Yemen — A rebel assault on Yemen’s third-largest city shows that the country is still fighting to recover from nearly four years of conflict between government forces and Shiite rebels known as Houthis, who have advanced to within 10 miles of the coastal town of Thahteh.
The campaign, launched this month, takes place in a barren landscape of deserts and forests not far from the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. With a population of more than one million, the province of Marib supports a major oil field known as Zaydi, while also home to one of the country’s oilfields. Yemen also produces 6 million cubic meters of natural gas daily.
The path of destruction has repeatedly devastated the city, much of which consists of ancient mud houses along the streets. With few companies operating on the island, factories are also in ruins.
Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdul-Salam said Tuesday his fighters had taken control of “at least half” of Marib, with government troops retreating from the area. Abdul-Salam, who says coalition aircraft bombarded Marib in recent days, said the rebels were moving on the towns of Shuqr and Marib Basha, both close to Thahteh.
Following a U.N.-brokered cease-fire that was to take effect at midnight Tuesday, the Houthis have pulled back from all but eight of Marib’s 25 districts, according to local tribesmen.
Residents have stockpiled enough food and medicine for a month, said Othman al-Bairdy, who with the help of two colleagues has led a weekly nightly volunteer clean-up operation in a place few have left.
“We have hardly any people left in the city,” Bairdy said in an interview at one of his displacement camps in another part of the province.
Abdul-Salam denied reports that tens of thousands of Houthis were fleeing Marib and said his fighters in the province will hold on as long as necessary.
“We are in a defensive position and will not withdraw under any circumstances,” he said in a telephone interview from Sanaa, the capital. “Marib is not to be taken by force, it is for us to liberate it.”
However, several local Houthi fighters — who asked to be identified only by their first names for fear of retaliation — said their commander had not reached the front lines in Marib. They claimed they had withdrawn from the area, which was their stronghold, as well.
The reports could not be independently verified, but diplomats and civil activists confirmed the rebels’ operation was in progress.
Andriy Shevtsov, a Russian businessman who operates companies in the eastern city of Al Hudaydah, which is about 40 miles from Marib, said his employees and several of his vehicles were seized by the Houthis a week ago. He said that, following the seizure, “70 to 80 percent of the companies remained closed, including those of mine.” He said the company was compelled to pay wages out of cash brought to the city, a barrier to distribution of supplies to the region.
Another local, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal, said his own company, Mohammed Construction and Engineering, had closed and its employees were unable to find work. “We were forced to go home and we have been here ever since,” he said.
Government officials have so far been unwilling to articulate plans for protecting Marib. In a press conference last week, said Tareq Ghalabani, the official responsible for Marib’s protection, also appeared to be retreating, without more concrete action.
“It is time to suspend all military operations to protect the port of Marib,” he said, later adding that the government, however, had done that when rebels attacked the province.
Rebel forces took control of most of Marib in 2015 as they advanced on Sanaa, the capital. But eventually, Yemeni forces, with the help of the coalition, forced the Houthis to withdraw to the northern portion of the province.