Houthi forces in Yemen (file)
Houthi forces in Yemen (file)Reuters

Iranian-backed Shi'ite Houthi rebels in Yemen captured the presidential palace in the strategic southern port city of Aden on Thursday, in a turn of events that could have a wide impact on the region if the key port falls completely under Iranian influence.

The conquest of the palace comes as part of the Houthis capture of the central Crater neighborhood of the city, which houses the commercial hub of Aden, reports BBC.

Over 44 people were killed, among them 18 civilians, according to AFP, as a result of the Houthi onslaught that was carried off with tanks and armored vehicles unhampered by airstrikes conducted by the Saudi-led coalition.

Hours after the Shi'ite conquest of the central parts of the city ground troops landed in Aden, with many speculating that the unidentified soldiers were part of the Saudi coalition, in what would have been the first time it had deployed boots on the ground.

But those speculations were dismissed by a port official, who said the troops were armed guards from a Chinese ship who were either bringing aid or evacuating foreign nationals, according to Reuters.

The battle in Aden has much larger regional implications, given that the port controls the highly strategic Bab al-Mandab Strait, the access point to the Red Sea and ultimately Israel's southern port city of Eilat. The waterway is a key route for Israeli and European trade.

Iran held a major naval drill off the coast of Yemen last December, showing its clear interests in exerting influence in the region. If Aden falls completely to the Houthis, it would become a highly strategic port for Iranian warships, and possibly be a regional game-changer.

It had been a stronghold of Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who fled Aden last Thursday as the Houthis approached. That same day Saudi Arabia launched a campaign of airstrikes aided by other Arab states, with a goal of returning Hadi to power.

The Saudi initiative apparently has caused it to be a target.

A Saudi border guard was shot dead in a border skirmish on Thursday, with his death becoming the first suffered by the Saudis since the campaign began.

In Mukalla, another Yemeni port city 300 miles east of Aden, Al-Qaeda terrorists on Thursday took over a local prison and freed around 150 prisoners, among them a number of Al-Qaeda members.

Yemeni officials said the freed prisoners included Khaled Batarfi, a leading figure in the Yemeni Al-Qaeda who had been arrested four years ago.