Pro-government forces in Yemen have retaken the country’s largest airbase in a battle with Houthi rebels, government officials say.
Heavy casualties have been reported at al-Anad airbase, north of Aden, after intense fighting there in recent days.
It comes after pro-government forces, backed by air strikes from a Saudi-led coalition, retook Aden two weeks ago.
The Saudis are leading a campaign to defeat the rebels, who control much of Yemen, and restore the government.
Troops and armoured vehicles from the United Arab Emirates – a key member of the coalition – are also said to have arrived in Aden in recent days.
Military officials quoted by the Associated Press news agency say the foreign troops are helping the pro-government forces operate sophisticated weapons, including tanks. The New York Times said the troops had been involved in the fighting at al-Anad.
However, local journalists told the BBC that Emirati troops had recently disembarked in Aden and were deployed as advisers, rather than in combat, while a Yemeni military official denied foreign troops had landed in Yemen.
The reported deployment of tanks and other armoured vehicles from the United Arab Emirates, which have been seen unloading in the southern port of Aden over recent days, represents the first major ground involvement by the Arab coalition ranged against the Houthi rebels.
It is a signal that the air campaign launched in March has its limits and it is a sign too that the Saudi-led coalition is willing now to become more engaged in the fighting.
US sources cited by the New York Times have confirmed the deployment in broad terms though its exact composition remains unclear.
Some estimates suggest numbers in the order of 3,000. There are indications that the arrival of the heavy armour has already had an impact in helping seize the al-Anad air base – an important asset that could provide a launch-pad for more extensive operations against the rebels.
Al-Anad used to be a base for US troops overseeing drone attacks on al-Qaeda. It was overrun by Houthi rebels as they advanced south in March, forcing President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi to flee.
“The al-Anad airbase is now back in the hands of President Hadi’s men,” Nasr Alkaid, a spokesman for the pro-government forces, told the BBC. He said the loyalists were still battling rebels about 4km (2.5 miles) from the base.
Bashraheel Bashraheel, the editor of Yemen’s Al Ayyam newspaper, told the BBC that the rebels were overstretched and outgunned.
“The Houthis aren’t in an environment that supports them so their defeat was a matter of time,” he said. “Their lines of supply have been cut off… and that’s why we are seeing this quick collapse.”
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