ADEN (AFP) - Gulf-supported forces loyal to Yemen's exiled government on Saturday retook a fifth province in the country's south, military officials said, as they continued their advance against Iran-backed rebels.
The rebels withdrew and handed over Shabwa to the pro-government forces after they were promised a safe route out of the province, a military official told AFP.
Other army officials confirmed the rebel pull-out.
"The province was handed over" to the Southern Movement, a secessionist group whose militants have been fighting in loyalist ranks, said Salem al-Awlaqi, a political activist in Shabwa.
Loyalist forces in the south launched an offensive last month against the rebels, forcing them out of main southern city Aden in mid-July.
They later advanced retaking the provinces Daleh, Lahj, and Abyan, in addition to Shabwa - which has substantial oil reserves.
Complaining of marginalisation, the Shiite Huthi rebels descended from their northern stronghold last year and seized capital Sanaa unopposed before advancing on second city Aden in March.
Renegade troops still loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who resigned in 2012 following a year-long popular uprising against his rule, have joined the Huthis.
On the other side, the southern secessionists have joined ranks with pro-government troops as well as local Sunni tribes to form what they have dubbed Popular Resistance Committees.
The conflict has cost nearly 4,300 lives since March, half of them civilians, according to UN figures, while 80 per cent of Yemen's 21 million people need aid and protection.
The five provinces retaken by pro-government troops, along with Mahra and Hadramawt, which the rebels never entered, comprise what was formerly known as the independent South Yemen.
It was its own state between the end of British colonial rule in 1967 and its union with the north in 1990.
A secession attempt four years later sparked a brief civil war that ended with northern forces occupying the region.