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Yemen Government Claims Crucial Advance in Battle on Red Sea Coast

Fighters loyal to the Saudi-backed Yemeni president hold a position during a military operation against Shi'ite Houthi rebels and their allies in the coastal district of Dhubab, Jan. 7, 2017.

Senior army commanders in Yemen said Saturday that government forces had liberated a key, rebel-held coastal district from Iran-backed Houthi rebels during a military offensive to protect vital Red Sea shipping lanes from rebel artillery and missiles.

There were conflicting reports late Saturday on casualties, with multiple regional news reports quoting military sources as saying about 20 combatants had been killed in the fighting that began Friday in Dhubab district. However, it was not clear whether government forces or rebel fighters bore the brunt of the losses.

"We have liberated almost all of Dhubab and Al-Wazyia regions," General Fadhel Hassan, commander of the government's regional forces, told the Dubai-based Gulf News.

Hassan said the Sunni force had been aided by airstrikes from the Saudi-led Arab coalition, which has been battling Shi'ite Houthis on behalf of Yemeni President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi and his internationally recognized government for nearly two years.

Hassan linked Saturday's advances to a new shipment of modern arms from the Saudi-led coalition.

For its part, the Houthi-controlled SABA news agency in Aden, seized by rebels two years ago, offered a significantly different account of Saturday's combat.

The agency described the government force at Dhubab as a unit of "U.S.-backed, Saudi-paid mercenaries" and said dozens in the government force had been killed and wounded when Houthi forces "foiled" the advance.

There have been no independent reports clarifying the outcome of Saturday's fighting.

The Saudi-led coalition of regional Sunni governments has been fighting on behalf of Hadi since March 2015.

The coalition joined the fray a year after Houthi rebels, alleging years of discrimination by the Sana'a government, launched a rebellion aimed at wresting power from Hadi. The United Nations says more than 10,000 people, most of them civilians, have been killed since the outbreak of fighting in September 2014.