Heavy fighting near the Yemeni city of Marib has killed 96 fighters in the past two days as Huthi rebels press their offensive against the government’s last northern tower, loyalist commanders said on Friday.
“Conflicts between the two sides on several fronts in the Marib area on Wednesday and Thursday killed 36 loyalist troops and 60 rebels,” a government military source told AFP.
The Iranian-backed Shiite rebels rarely reveal their own losses.
Aircraft from a Saudi-led military coalition provided air support to state ground forces.
The Huthis “continue their slow progress towards Marib and now pose a very real threat to Kassara and the Mashjah front, northwest of the city,” another loyalist military official told AFP.
The loss of Marib would be a severe blow to the Yemeni government, which is currently based in the southern city of Aden, and to its Saudi support.
The city of Marib and its surrounding oil fields constitute the last significant pocket of government-controlled territory in the north, the rest of which is under rebel control, including the capital Sanaa.
The fall of the city can also lead to a humanitarian catastrophe, as a large number of civilians displaced from fighting elsewhere have sought refuge in the area.
About 140 camps have sprung up in the surrounding desert to provide basic protection for up to two million displaced people, according to the Yemeni government.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has warned that suffering will only end when there is a political solution between the Huthis and the government.
The rebels see Marib as a strategic award that gives them more bargaining power in peace talks that Washington says must begin soon.
The conflict has killed tens of thousands of people since Saudi Arabia and its allies intervened in 2015.
Millions have been pushed to the brink of famine, in what the UN has described as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.