The army had overrun Mokha on February 10.Tuesday’s clashes were a major setback for an offensive launched by government forces in January to try to recapture Yemen’s 450 kilometer (280 mile) Red Sea coastline, which had previously been almost entirely in rebel hands.
Government commanders had talked confidently of pushing north toward the rebel-held port city of Hodeida, a vital conduit for UN-supervised aid deliveries to rebel-held areas.
The loyalists’ February capture of Mokha was their biggest success in months.
The rebels still hold the capital Sanaa and much of the central and northern highlands as well as the coast around Hodeida.
Before the 19th Century, Mokha was Yemen’s main port and export hub for coffee grown in the highlands and its historical symbolism meant it was fiercely fought over.
Its role was overtaken by Hodeida and second city Aden, where the government is based.
In addition to the war with the Houthis, the government and its forces have come under repeated jihadist attack.
Al-Qaeda fighters on Tuesday seized three trucks transporting arms in the southern province of Abyan, according to military and tribal sources.
The trucks had been delivering weapons to a pro-government coalition post in Taiz, located around 100 kilometers (62 miles) east of Mokha, the sources said.
Al-Qaeda and the rival Daesh group have taken advantage of nearly two years of fighting between the government and the Houthis to entrench their presence in Yemen’s south.