ADEN: Loyalist forces battled to oust Iran-backed rebels from their remaining positions in Yemen's second city Aden Thursday as exiled ministers prepared to return to assess the damage from four months of fighting.
The planned visit by the three ministers would be the first since the Houthi rebels and their allies entered the southern port city in March forcing President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi and his government into exile in neighboring Saudi Arabia.
Since the launch of Operation Golden Arrow Tuesday, Hadi's loyalists have recaptured Aden airport and much of the surrounding Khormaksar diplomatic district, as well as the provincial government headquarters, in their biggest counteroffensive so far.
On Thursday pro-Hadi forces recaptured the rebel-held district of Crater near the presidential palace in Aden, loyalist General Abdullah al-Subeih said.
He said Saudi-led warplanes that have been waging airstrikes against the insurgents since March hit rebel positions, and that 71 Houthis and rebel soldiers surrendered.
Pro-government fighters used loudspeakers to offer rebels in the districts of Crater, Mualla and Khormaksar safe passage out of the city if they lay down their arms, local officials said.
The southern militiamen of the Popular Resistance, backed by reinforcements freshly trained and equipped in Saudi Arabia, have also gained ground in Mualla.
The rebels tried to bring in reinforcements from the central province of Baida overnight but were bombed by coalition warplanes.
The coalition also hit rebel positions on Aden's northern and eastern outskirts and in other districts of the city, military sources and witnesses said.
The retreating rebels again pounded Aden oil refinery with Katyusha multiple rocket launchers, sparking a new blaze at the facility, which has 1.2 million tonnes of crude in storage, an oil official said.
Thick smoke formed over the refinery - Yemen's largest - and residents of nearby areas were evacuated, witnesses said.
With the rebels in retreat, the exiled government announced plans late Wednesday for Interior Minister Abdo al-Houdaithi, Transport Minister Badr Baslama, and Deputy Health Minister Nasser Baoum to head to Aden.
Government spokesman Rajih Badi told AFP that they would leave Riyadh "in the coming hours ... to assess the situation and the magnitude of the destruction."
"Most parts of the city are secure," he said, adding that the government was working on securing remaining districts.
But officials in Aden said they had yet to arrive Thursday afternoon.
"No minister from Hadi's government has arrived in Aden," a provincial official told AFP.
Aden airport security chief Abdullah Qayed said "no plane has landed at the airport."
And a Hadi adviser, Yassin Makawi, said only that "preparations are under way for the arrival of the official delegation in Aden," without giving further details.
Aden was Hadi's last refuge after he fled the rebel-controlled capital Sanaa earlier this year as the rebels took over the government and launched an offensive in which they seized much of the rest of the country.
Much of the city has been reduced to rubble by the four months of ferocious fighting.
The loyalist offensive came after the failure of a U.N.-declared truce that was supposed to have taken effect last weekend to allow the delivery of desperately needed relief supplies.
The U.N. has declared Yemen a level-3 humanitarian emergency, the highest on its scale.
More than 21.1 million people - over 80 percent of Yemen's population - need aid, with 13 million facing food shortages, while access to water has become difficult for 9.4 million people.
Nationwide, the fighting has killed more than 3,200 people since late March.
Saudi ally the United Arab Emirates said Thursday that one of its officers had been killed "while carrying out his duties in coalition ranks."
The statement carried by the official WAM news agency gave no further details.