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On the ground with Yemeni soldiers battling Iran-allied rebels

Correction: The original version of this piece misidentified the defense minister for Yemen, Lt. Gen Mohammed Ali Al-Maqdashi. The piece has been updated to reflect his correct name and title. The NewsHour regrets the error.

Three months ago, President Biden ended American military involvement in the war in Yemen and reversed President Trump's decision to designate the Houthis a terrorist organization. But soon after, as special correspondent Jane Ferguson reports, the Houthis launched an offensive east from the capital, Sana'a, towards the city of Marib, the last stronghold of Saudi-backed Yemeni government forces.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It has been three months since President Biden ended American military involvement in the war in Yemen. The U.S. was providing logistical support to a Saudi-led coalition fighting rebels in the country known as Houthis, who are allied with Saudi Arabia's regional enemy Iran.

    Before leaving office, former President Trump designated the Houthis a terrorist organization. President Biden reversed that move when aid agencies warned that it would make getting food to civilians in rebel-held areas harder.

    But, as special correspondent Jane Ferguson tells us from the front lines, shortly after Biden's move, the Houthis launched an offensive east from the capital, Sanaa, towards the city of Marib, the last stronghold of Saudi-backed Yemeni government forces.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    This is what six years of war in Yemen has come to, an ultimate battle in the desert for the future of this country, a small trench manned by government fighters with little more than AK-47s, fighting Iran-allied rebels called Houthis.

    Brigadier Abdulrahman Radman led us to where his men are trying to hold the line. That line is a vague, dusty mark in the desert.

    The Houthis are just beyond this berm and over through those trees. The government soldiers are in the trees fighting back at them.

    A major new offensive by the rebels to take this area called Marib began just days after President Biden said he would cancel a last-minute Trump designation of the Houthis as a terrorist group. These men believe that emboldened their enemy.

  • Brig. Gen. Abdulrahman Radman (through translator):

    When the Biden administration took the Houthis off the terrorism list, they became more aggressive. They took the Houthis from the list of terrorists because of the humanitarian situation. But if they want to save people, the best thing is to put them on the list of terrorists.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    The terrorism designation, however, would also have made it harder to get commercially traded food to civilians in rebel-held areas, accelerating a looming famine.

    As the brigadier arrived in the only armored vehicle for miles, they make use of the top gun to take the pressure off. With quick return fire, the Houthi fighters remind us of their presence too.

    Even in this vast expanse, the fighting is so close, it occupies just a thin strip of this landscape.

    The Houthis are right there behind us, just 50 meters away, the soldiers tell us. They are exchanging fire with them. This front line moves all the time as the Houthis try to push towards Marib.

    The rebels constantly test the government forces defenses. The fighting here is crude, brutal close combat. Despite being backed financially and logistically by a Saudi-led coalition of countries, conditions on the front are tough for the Yemeni government troops.

    We traveled across Yemen's northeast desert to where this war has reached a climax. We heard no Saudi warplanes providing air support, and the only heavy weaponry we saw was this multiple rocket launch system.

    The medevac station is a shack with a few boxes of medicines. The only way to a hospital is the same way we came, in the back of a truck.

    It's two hours from here over the desert in trucks for injured soldiers coming from the front. There's not one helicopter in the entire front line.

    After years, Yemen's war is reaching a defining point. The Iran-allied Houthi rebels seized control of the capital, Sanaa, in 2014 and have been battling the government of Yemen and its troops, supported by the Saudi-led coalition, ever since.

    Back in nearby Marib city, both those fighting this war and those fleeing from it share its streets. Once a small desert town, this is now the center of a final government stand against advancing Houthi rebels. Soldiers with the internationally recognized Yemeni government and allied armed tribesmen rest and catch up between spasms of fighting.

    Those wounded on the front, the ones that make it back here, continue to fight for their lives at the hospital. Marib owns the country's main oil and gas resources. If the rebels take the city, it would not only push the government from its last major stronghold, but it would provide a vital financial lifeline to the Houthis.

    The defense minister of Yemen knows this is a fight his men cannot afford to lose.

  • Man (through translator):

    The battle for Marib is one of defending our people, our nation and freedom. We are in a battle to save the future of the next generation. The future of Yemen.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Rebuilding the Yemeni army in Marib, after revolution, mutiny and war, have focused on professionalizing tribal fighters, recruiting those pushed from their homes by the Houthis, and men from this region desperate to defend the city from a rebel takeover.

  • Man (through translator):

    In the beginning of the war, it was only resistance fighters and they fought the Houthis in all the governorates. And tribesmen fought. They have good experience in fighting.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    The Saudis' main partner on the ground in Yemen, the United Arab Emirates, pulled most of its forces out in 2019. And Riyadh is under increasing pressure to wind down this war.

    What will happen to the Yemeni military if the Saudi leave this war?

  • Man (through translator):

    We thank them for everything they gave us, both military and civilian support to the official government. But I believe the Houthis will never leave Saudi Arabia alone or the Gulf countries. God forbid the Houthis ever control this area. Victory must be ours.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    The Biden administration has ended military support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen and appointed a new U.S. envoy for peace.

    This disastrous war has become synonymous with human suffering, creating the worst humanitarian disaster in the world and pushing millions to the brink of starvation. Potential peace talks and a cease-fire seem a long way off.

    Persuading the Houthis to come to the table before any Marib takeover will be difficult, getting the Saudis to make a realistic offer of a cease-fire equally so.

    We also traveled to Houthi controlled areas to interview a senior leader of the group. It has been over two years since we last spoke with Muhammad Ali Al-Houthi.

    Is it the intention to take my Arab, or would you ever stopped for talks before taking the city?

  • Muhammad Ali Al-Houthi (through translator):

    Liberating all of Yemen from the mercenaries and invaders is a duty for all Yemeni people. Who leads the fighters in Marib? It's either American or Saudi or Emirati soldiers.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Will there be no peace until you take Marib?

  • Muhammad Ali Al-Houthi (through translator):

    When we receive a serious approach to peace from them and practical steps, we will talk, but, until now, nothing. All that is going on is just talk. Whether or not we advance on Marib depends on their practical steps.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    While arguments over war and peace roll on, families fleeing their homes are constantly on the move, rockets inching closer every day, gunfire and explosions often crashing into these makeshift camps just behind the front lines.

    Tens of thousands of men, women and children wait here for the war to end, while, just beyond the hills, it rages. Those who cannot afford to live in the city set up camp in the dusty, unrelenting heat of the desert.

    She says, just today, 1,000 families, they just scattered. They had to leave and just scatter out further, pushing back further from the front line. This woman did not wish to give her name, but said she is here with her five children. I asked her if she is afraid.

    "We never sleep," she tells me. "We are afraid for our safety. We are afraid for our children. We fled our villages. We left our houses and our land. We left everything behind. They are chasing our husbands. They throw our children in jail. We got frightened, so we came here and they followed us. Where should we go? We thought, the only thing we have is God and Marib. And now they want to take Marib from us."

    Some of the women gather around to tell us of the fighting that followed them here. They hand me bullets and shrapnel they have gathered from the dirt around their tents, landing just short of their children, sleeping under thin canvas.

    We met Mohsin Nasser in an abandoned camp nearby. It's dangerous, he admitted, but at least he can graze his goats.

  • Mohsin Nasser (through translator):

    I don't think the war with the Houthis will ever stop. The Houthis will never negotiate. They just want death, not life.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    I asked him if he thinks the Houthis will continue to try to take the city?

  • Mohsin Nasser (through translator):

    I hope they do not enter Marib. I ask God, where would the refugees go? Should they go to the desert to die? I don't think God will let it happen. Every time the war reaches us, we flee.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    And, still, they come. Still, they move when they have to. Families packing and unpacking their belongings is a ritual of survival her, the exhausted, dreary transits between one dusty patch to another, in search of safety, in search of the promise of hope, hope for an end to this war.

    If efforts for a cease-fire do not succeed, these families will flee again. They are running out of places to go.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jane Ferguson in Marib, Yemen.

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