Forces loyal to exiled Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi backed by the Arab coalition say they have recaptured the strategic Bab al-Mandeb Strait from Houthi fighters.
There was no confirmation of the loss by the Houthis of the waterway, which connects the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden and the rest of the Indian Ocean.
“In a large-scale military operation launched today, Yemeni government, resistance and coalition forces liberated the Bab al-Mandeb strait and Mayoun island with the goal of safeguarding this key sea route,” Rajeh Badi told Reuters by telephone from the southern port city of Aden.
Reuters news agency quoted local residents on Thursday as reporting air strikes and shelling by warships in support of a ground push towards the area.
However, they could not immediately confirm that the strait had fallen.
A Yemeni military official who spoke to DPA news agency on Thursday said there were casualties on both sides in the battle.
Bab al-Mandeb forms part of the world’s busiest shipping routes, with much of the Middle East’s oil exports passing through the body of water.
More than 3.4 million barrels of oil per day passed through the Bab al-Mandeb in 2013, according to the US Energy Information Administration.
Houthi fighters and allied forces loyal to Ali Abdullah Saleh, former Yemeni president, seized Bab al-Mandab and Mayoun in southwestern Yemen about six months ago as part of their sweep across the country earlier in the year.
The Houthi advances forced Hadi to flee and prompted military intervention by Yemen’s northern neighbour Saudi Arabia and other Arab and Muslim states.
The Arab coalition’s initial involvement was limited to air strikes and arms shipments to pro-Hadi forces but has since escalated to include ground troops.
Saudi Arabia has accused Iran of supporting the Houthis, who belong to a form of Shia Islam, known as Zaydism.
The Houthis deny any support from Iran and described their seizure of the capital Sanaa in September last year and the Bab al-Mandeb along with other parts of the country as a nationwide revolution against corrupt officials subservient to the West.
Ground fighting and coalition air strikes have killed more than 5,400 people in Yemen, according to the UN, and exacerbated widespread hunger and suffering.
On Monday, 131 civilians were killed at a wedding party in a purported air strike on a village near the strait.
The Arab coalition has denied it was involved.