Yemeni rebels have mounted a deadly counterattack against government troops advancing down the Red Sea coast from the Saudi border ahead of a planned ceasefire next month, military sources said on Thursday.
The rebels and their allies surrounded a government force that was attempting to recapture the coastal town of Midi and killed 45 loyalist troops on Tuesday and Wednesday, the sources said.
At least 15 rebels were also killed in the fighting.
Forces loyal to the internationally recognised government based in the south crossed the border from Saudi Arabia in mid-December in a bid to open up a new front in the north as offensives faltered in the centre and east.
They swiftly captured the inland town of Haradh and Midi port, but they have met heavy resistance from the rebels and their allies in the adjacent town.
Despite a Saudi-led military intervention, which is now in its second year, the Huthi Shiite rebels still control most of the Red Sea coast, including the key ports of Hodeida and Mokha.
With coalition air and ground support, forces loyal to President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi have pushed the rebels out of most of the south and made some headway in the east and northeast.
But with the support of renegade troops loyal to Hadi's ousted predecessor Ali Abdullah Saleh, the rebels have retained control of the capital Sanaa and most of the highlands of the north and centre.
The latest fighting comes as the warring parties prepare for a UN-brokered ceasefire on April 10 intended to pave the way for peace talks in Kuwait on April 18.
The planned truce was only agreed by the two sides after months of shuttle diplomacy by UN envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed.
Previous UN-sponsored negotiations between the rebels and the government failed to make any headway, and a ceasefire announced for December 15 was repeatedly violated and abandoned by the coalition on January 2.
- Qaeda pushed back -
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There has been mounting international pressure for an end to the conflict as the civilian death toll has mounted and the humanitarian situation deteriorated.
The seizure of several key southern cities by Al-Qaeda and the growing presence in the south of rival jihadists of the Islamic State group has also triggered international alarm.
The Sunni extremists of Al-Qaeda have exploited the focus of loyalist and coalition firepower on the Shiite rebels to expand their control across the south, even in parts of Aden, where the government has its base.
But in recent days, loyalist forces have gone on the offensive against the jihadists in the port city and the coalition has carried out a series of air strikes against Al-Qaeda in cities it has seized.
On Wednesday, troops and militia recaptured Aden's central prison and deployed across the residential neighbourhood of Mansura.
"Al-Qaeda militants have been pushed out of Mansura, and we have recaptured and secured government installations," said Aden governor Aidarus al-Zubaidi.
"We would not rule out the possibility that there are some dormant cells of Al-Qaeda in the city," he told AFP, adding that the next stage includes "pushing Al-Qaeda militants from the edges of Aden."
He said the government also intended to drive Al-Qaeda out of Huta and Zinjibar, the capitals of nearby Lahj and Abyan provinces.
Farther east, coalition warplanes struck Al-Qaeda positions overnight in Hadramawt provincial capital Mukalla, held by the jihadists since April last year, a security official said.
In Shabwa province, a US drone strike killed five suspected Al-Qaeda members in the town of Azzan on Wednesday a military official said.
There has been no let-up in the longstanding US air war against Al-Qaeda's Yemen-based branch, which it regards as the jihadist network's most dangerous.
US strikes have taken out a number of senior Al-Qaeda commanders in Yemen over the past year.