Yemen's Houthi rebels wrested control of the strategic northern city of Hazm, officials on both sides of the conflict said Sunday, a major blow to the internationally recognized government backed by Saudi Arabia.
Capturing the capital of Jawf province after weeks of fighting could pave the way for the rebels to move toward the central province of Marib, one of the shrinking safe spots for those opposing the Houthis in northern Yemen. It also could cause a new wave of displacement in the war-torn country.
Yemen, the Arab world's poorest nation, has been convulsed by civil war since 2014. That's when the Iran-backed Houtis took control of the country's north including the capital, Sanaa. A Saudi-led military coalition intervened against the Houthis the following year. Despite relentless Saudi airstrikes and a blockade of Yemen, the war has ground to a stalemate.
The conflict has killed over 10,000 people and created the world's worst humanitarian crisis, leaving millions suffering from food and medical care shortages and pushing the country to the brink of famine last year.
A Houthi official said Sunday that the Shiite group had pushed government forces out of Hazm and were "now chasing them in its outskirts."
Two government officials confirmed the city had fallen, but said government forces aided by Saudi coalition airstrikes were attempting to push back.
All the officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.
The coalition spokesman's office said their "operations" in Jawf "are still ongoing," but did not elaborate.
The Houthi-run al-Masirah satellite TV reported that the coalition carried out at least three airstrikes in Jawf on Sunday.
The rebels earlier this year seized a key supply line linking Marib with Jawf provinces, located along the border with Saudi Arabia. They also took control of the strategic district of Nehm, some 60 kilometers (37 miles) northeast of the rebel-held capital Sanaa.
"With the seizure of Hazm, the entire Jawf (province) is now considered in their hands, and this would enable them to expand to Marib and even try to take over the south," said Fatima al-Asrar, a non-resident scholar at the Washington-based Middle East Institute.
She said Houthi advances would increase the vulnerability of both civilians, including tribes, allied with the Saudi-backed government of Yemen's president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
At least 1,400 families, who were displaced into the district of Gail in Jawf province had moved to Hazm earlier this month. "Now thousands more are expected to leave their homes" because of the Houthi advance, she said.
Oil-rich Jawf province is where the Houthis shot down a coalition warplane last month, raising alarm among the Saudi-led camp that the rebels are acquiring advanced weaponry apparently from Iran, which has long denied arming the Houthis.
The U.S. and the Saudi-led coalition have for years said Iran supplies weapons to the Houthis, ranging from assault rifles to the ballistic missiles fired into the kingdom.
The U.N. Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths on Friday condemned "the recent military escalation" in Jawf, saying it was "seriously undermining the prospects of peace."
He warned that the warring parties have "no alternative to a negotiated political settlement" for ending the drawn-out conflict.