Yemen loyalists press towards rebel heartland from Saudi Arabia
SAADA - Forces loyal to the Yemeni government, many of them Sunni Islamist militiamen, have advanced into the Shiite rebel heartland from neighbouring Saudi Arabia, loyalist sources said on Wednesday.
The fighters entered Yemen at the long-closed Al-Buqah border crossing before pushing west towards the rebel stronghold of Saada, a militia source told AFP.
They "advanced dozens of kilometres towards the city of Saada," the government-controlled version of Yemen's Saba news agency said.
The fighters had been transported to the northern border from the government-controlled south with the support of Saudi Arabia, which has been leading a military intervention against the rebels since March last year.
The fighters include many Sunni Islamists who had previously fought against the rebels in the south, among them ultra-conservative Salafist leader Bassam al-Mehbar, the militia source said.
The Salafists ran several schools in mainly Shiite Saada province, before being evicted by the Huthi rebels when the civil war erupted in earnest in 2014.
Some of those expelled were among the militiamen involved in the incursion.
It is the second time that Saudi-backed government forces have tried to open up a new front against the rebels in the north by crossing from Saudi Arabia.
In December last year, troops advanced down the Red Sea coast, capturing the port of Midi, but that offensive has since made little headway.
The rebels and their allies still control most of the Red Sea coast, as well as the capital Sanaa and much of the central and northern highlands.
More than 6,800 people have been killed since the Saudi-led intervention began, almost two-thirds of them civilians, according to the United Nations.