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Saudis promise investigation into deadly Yemen market bombing

Houthi rebels say Saudi-led strike killed dozens of civilians, but health officials and locals dispute figures
Local witnesses held Saudi coalition jets responsible for the attack (AFP)

The Saudi Arabian-led coalition in Yemen has been blamed for the deaths of scores of people in an attack on a market in the Houthi-controlled province of Hajja, amid "confusion" over the number and identity of the casualties.

The coalition has said it will launch an investigation into allegations it was behind the attack, which came hours after the Dutch parliament passed a landmark resolution calling for an arms embargo to Saudi Arabia over its role in the Yemen conflict. 

At least two explosions hit a busy market in the north-western border province of Hajja on Tuesday, witnesses told the AP news agency.

"The scene was terrifying," Showei Hamoud told AP. "Blood and body parts everywhere. People collected the torn limbs in bags and blankets."

An official from the local MSF hospital where the casualties were taken told AFP on Tuesday that they had received 41 bodies of people killed in the attack.

However, on Wednesday the charity disputed its official's earlier claim, saying the hospital had treated 44 people injured in the blasts, two of whom later died.

US Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday demanded an investigation into an air strike on a market in Yemen that reportedly killed dozens of civilians.

"The secretary general condemns the airstrikes that hit al-Khamis market in Mastaba district in the Hajjah province of Yemen yesterday," Ban's office said.  

"This is the second major incident of this kind in just over two weeks," he added, stressing that attacks on civilian areas like markets are a breach of international law.

The political high command of the Houthi movement said it held the Saudi-led coalition responsible for the attack, which it said had targeted civilians. 

But on Wednesday a local tribal chief close to the Houthis said 33 of the 41 people killed had been rebel fighters allied to the Houthi movement.

Hajja province fell to the Houthis in September 2014. It has has been targeted several times by the Saudi-led coalition, including air strikes on a water-bottling plant in August that killed 34 people and injured dozens.

Witnesses to Tuesday's attack said there were no military targets in the area, and photos circulated on Twitter showed horrific scenes of the dead and dying in the aftermath of the attack.

A Houthi-run TV network showed footage of the aftermath of the attacks in which dead children and charred bodies were visible.

However, the Saudi-led coalition said on Tuesday that such pictures were not proof that the casualties had been caused by air strikes.

Brigadier Mohammed Assiri, the military coalition's spokesperson, said on Wednesday that they would launch an investigation into the market attack, saying that the casualties could have been caused by another type of attack.

A spokesperson for the Red Cross acknowledged on Tuesday that there was "confusion" surrounding the attack.

The political high command of the Houthi bloc has held the Saudi-led coalition responsible for the bombing, saying in a statement that the attack "does not in any way help us achieve peace.

"Rather, it will lead to a continuation of war and an escalation in the situation on the ground," said the statement, quoted by the Houthi-run al-Masirah website.

Rights groups have repeatedly urged the coalition to avoid causing civilian casualties.

Last month, Human Rights Watch accused the coalition of using US-supplied cluster bombs.

The coalition has said that an independent inquiry would examine charges of possible abuses against civilians in the conflict.

A panel of UN experts says the coalition has carried out 119 sorties that violated humanitarian law, and called for an international probe.

Saudi Arabia last March formed a coalition to support the Yemeni president, Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, in his war with the Houthi movement which took control of large areas of the country after kicking Hadi out of the capital Sanaa.