Members of the Yemeni army ride on the back of a military truck near the Red Sea coast city of al-Mokha, Yemen January 23, 2017. Image Credit: REUTERS

Aden: Fighting for a key port city on Yemen’s Red Sea coast has left at least 40 rebel and pro-government fighters dead, military officials said on Tuesday.

Loyalist forces said Monday they had captured the port of Mocha, almost three weeks into an offensive to oust Al Houthi insurgents and their allies from Yemen’s southwestern coast.

But they exchanged fire overnight with rebels still holed up in the port on Mocha’s southwestern edge.

Clashes continued Tuesday on the southern and eastern outskirts of the city.

“Despite the significant human toll, the Al Houthis are still in the centre of Mocha,” a military official told AFP.

Rebel snipers were reported to have slowed the loyalist advance.

At least 28 rebels and 12 pro-government fighters have been killed in fighting in the past 24 hours, military and medical sources said Tuesday.

That brought to nearly 200 the number of deaths on both sides since the offensive began.

Al Houthi forces had controlled Mocha since they overran the capital Sana’a in September 2014 and advanced on other regions aided by troops loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Forces supporting President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, backed by a Saudi-led coalition, launched a vast offensive on January 7 to retake the coastline overlooking the Bab Al Mandab strait.

The strait is a strategically vital maritime route connecting the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean.

Military sources said fighter jets and Apache attack helicopters from the coalition have been pounding the Iran-backed rebels and their allies.

But despite the coalition’s superior firepower, rebels and their allies still control the capital Sana’a, much of the central and northern highlands, and most of the 450-kilometre Red Sea coast.

Government forces say they want to oust rebel forces from the entire coastline, including the town of Midi near the Saudi border.

A government official said the rebels had brought reinforcements to Mocha from neighbouring Ibb province, and that the fight for the town would take time.

The World Health Organisation says more than 7,400 people have been killed since the coalition intervention began in March 2015.

But UN humanitarian coordinator Jamie McGoldrick said last week that as many as 10,000 civilians may have died.