Forces battling Houthi fighters in Yemen say they have captured the country’s largest military base following intense clashes which left dozens killed.
In a statement on Monday, the government of exiled President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi claimed complete control of al-Anad base in Lahej province in the country’s south.
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“With the help and back-up of the Arab-led coalition, this achievement was possible,” the statement said.
Troops were also supported by Popular Resistance Committees who have sided with the government in the fight against the Houthis.
The Houthis’ loss of the base deals a significant blow to the Iran-allied Shia group, which has seized large parts of the country but recently lost control of the southern port city of Aden.
Nasser Hadour, an officer in the Popular Resistance Committees, told Al Jazeera that forces were also able to enter another military base between al-Sader and al-Madina al-Khadra in Lahej province.
Reporting from the base, Al Jazeera’s Yasser Hasan said it was clear that the base was completely under the control of Popular Resistance Committees forces.
“We can see al-Anad from here too,” he said, describing it as “a very strategic airbase”.
“There are only small areas under Houthi control around the al-Anad base but the Resistance [fighters] have been using a selection of arms and tanks to push back the Houthis,” Hasan said.
Houthi fighters and their allies had been in control of al-Anad since March.
Spread over 40sq km, al-Anad houses a military airport, a war college and an arms depot.
It was previously used by US forces as an intelligence-gathering hub and base for drone attacks on al-Qaeda’s Yemen branch.
The assault by anti-Houthi forces began after new supplies, including armoured vehicles, were delivered Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
At least 50 Houthi fighters and troops loyal to Hadi were killed in the battle for al-Anad base, military sources told Al Jazeera.
At least 23 Popular Resistance Committees fighters also died, the sources said.
There was no word from the Houthis on the outcome of the battle, but the Houthi-run Saba news agency said earlier that Saudi-led air raids had repeatedly struck the military base.
Al-Anad lies on the road to Taiz, the next target for the coalition after their recapture of the port city of Aden.
Al Jazeera’s Hashem Ahelbarra, who has covered Yemen extensively, said that while the Popular Resistance Committees are against the Houthis, they form a loose umbrella group whose members do not necessarily back Hadi.
“They have been forced together by the Houthi threat but they have different agendas. Many of them are southern secessionists who in fact see Hadi as a threat,” he said.
The Yemeni army has been split since the Houthis’ advance last year. Some units backing Ali Abdullah Saleh, the deposed president, are fighting alongside the Houthis, while others remain loyal to Hadi.
“The Saudi-led coalition is training anti-Houthi forces, providing them with new weapons to build a new army from scratch,” our correspondent said.
“Their aim is to maintain Yemen united under one leader and a professional army.
“But that aim will depend on how the different factions get along. Yemen remains divided along regional and sectarian ties.”
The exiled government’s military says controlling al-Anad will help the push to recapture Taiz and the southern provinces.
Hadi remains in Saudi Arabia, where he fled in March as the Houthis closed in on his refuge in Aden.
The Houthis broke out of their northern strongholds and seized control of the capital Sanaa in September, tipping Yemen into a regional conflict.