A Shiite fighter known as a Houthi stands guard in front of buildings damaged by a Saudi-led airstrike in Sanaa, Yemen. Image Credit: AP - File

Dubai: Gulf Arab nations are expanding the ground war in Yemen, pouring more troops into the country to defeat Al Houthi rebels they say are backed by regional rival Iran.

About 1,000 troops from Qatar entered the country on Sunday from the Wadia post on Saudi Arabia’s border with Yemen, the Qatari-owned Al Jazeera television reported. The soldiers, backed by armoured vehicles, missiles and missile launchers, were headed to the oil-rich central Marib province, Al Jazeera said, citing its correspondent at the border.

This would be Qatari ground troops first reported involvement in a Saudi-backed offensive against the Al Houthi group.

Information on whether the Qatari soldiers have entered Yemen yet have been conflicting.

Military sources told Reuters that Qatari forces were on their way to Yemen and preparing to join a new push on Al Houthi positions in Sana’a — though they said the soldiers had not yet entered the Arabian Peninsula country.

Qatari pilots have joined months of Saudi-led air strikes on the Al Houthis, an Iran-allied militia group that seized Sana’a last year, advanced across the country and forced President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi into exile in March.

A Qatar-based defence source said the number of Qatari troops was less than 1,000. “They are as of now not deployed in Yemen but in Saudi Arabia to protect the border,” the source added.

But a local Yemeni official in the oil-producing Marib province east of Sana’a said the Qatari contingent had “crossed Al Wadia border post” between Saudi Arabia and Yemen and were heading to Marib — where Hadi loyalists have been preparing for an offensive on Sana’a.

The Saudi-owned Al Hayat newspaper said on Monday that Saudi Arabia had also sent “huge reinforcements” of its elite forces, along with Qatari troops, to Marib.

“Final preparations are being made for a decisive battle, before moving on to liberate Sana’a,” Al Hayat said.

The reported involvement of Qatari ground troops came amid an escalation of the conflict days after a missile strike that killed dozens of Gulf Arab soldiers.

The reinforcements come after 45 troops from the UAE and 10 Saudi soldiers were killed in Marib on Friday in the worst setback for the coalition since the Saudi-led military campaign started in March. Bahrain, another member of the coalition, said five of its soldiers were also killed defending Saudi Arabia’s southern border.

The coalition campaign has helped the internationally recognised government retake parts of southern Yemen. The coalition started bombing Yemen in March in an attempt to restore President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi to power after the Al Houthis seized Sana’a, prompting him to flee.

Jean-Marc Rickli, assistant professor at the Department of King’s College London and teaching at the military’s Qatar National Defence College, told Reuters: “It is the first time that Qatari ground forces have been deployed in Yemen. So far, the Qatari contribution was only through its air force.

“This force will probably take part in the overall war effort to retake the capital after the coalition successfully recaptured Aden last month,” he added.

The Al Houthis say they have suffered from discrimination by successive Yemeni governments.

Coalition officials have said they aim to move north to retake Sana’a from the Al Houthis, who are backed by former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh. To move on the capital, they need to recapture Marib first, said Ebrahim Fraihat, senior political analyst at Brookings Doha Centre.

“Marib is quite dangerous, it’s in the centre of Yemen,” he said by phone.

— With inputs from Reuters