68 killed in battles near Yemen's strategic strait

Aden (AFP) - At least 68 fighters have been killed in two days of fierce battles between Yemeni forces and Shiite Huthi rebels near the strategic Bab al-Mandab strait, military officials said Sunday.

Government forces launched an assault Saturday, recapturing the coastal Dhubab district, just 30 kilometres (20 miles) north of Bab al-Mandab which links the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean.

Since then at least 55 Huthis have been killed in fighting and 72 others wounded, military and medical sources said.

Clashes since Saturday have also killed 13 loyalists forces, including an army general, Brigadier-General Abdul Aziz al-Majidi, a loyalist commander, told AFP.

They said fighting was still underway Sunday as loyalist forces were trying to retake from the rebels a key military base in the Dhubab region.

Al-Omari base is located in a mountainous region that overlooks the coastal road linking Bab al-Mandab region to Dhubab, and opens the way to rebel-held Hudaida port on the Red Sea.

The Huthis, and allied fighters, on Sunday fired two ballistic missiles that were intercepted by the Saudi-led coalition that backs the Yemen government, a loyalist military source said.

Landmines planted by the rebels had slowed down the advance of government forces, military officials said.

The government and its allies in the Saudi-led coalition recaptured Bab al-Mandab strait in October 2015, pushing the Iran-backed rebels further north.

But the rebels still control nearly all of Yemen's Red Sea coast to the north, posing what the coalition says is a threat to international shipping.

In September and October, two US warships and a United Arab Emirates vessel contracted to the coalition were targeted by missile fire from rebel-held territory.

Pro-government troops seized Dhubab in early October 2015, but the rebels managed to recapture the area in February.

The Yemeni conflict has killed more than 7,000 people since the coalition's military intervention began in March 2015, according to the United Nations.

Also on Sunday, a drone likely carried out by US forces, killed a local Al-Qaeda leader in the central province of Baida, a security source said.