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Yemen market strike killed 119 in one of war's deadliest attacks: UN

UNICEF says 22 children were among the dead after a strike the Saudi-led coalition targeted a 'militia gathering'
A child stands in the rubble after an attack by the Saudi-led coalition in Sanaa last month (AFP)

Saudi-led air strikes on a market killed 119 people in northern Yemen's rebel-held Hajja province, the United Nations said on Thursday, nearly three times the previously reported death toll.

Among those killed in Mastaba district on Tuesday were 22 children, and another 47 people were wounded, the UNICEF children's agency said.

It is one of the highest death tolls since the Saudi-led coalition launched a bombing campaign in support of the government of Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi against Houthi rebels and their allies in March last year.

A UNICEF spokesman said the casualty figures were preliminary and that an investigation was ongoing.

Medics and tribal sources had previously reported 41 people killed in the strikes, and a health official in Hajja said the dead were civilians.

But a tribal chief close to the rebels on Wednesday told AFP that 33 of those killed were fighters of the Houthis.

A coalition spokesman acknowledged a strike in the area, saying planes had targeted "a militia gathering" in a place for buying and selling qat, a mild narcotic that is chewed throughout Yemen.

The coalition has promised to launch an investigation into allegations that the attack caused a large number of civilian casualties.

"We strongly deplore the deadliest attack in Al-Khamees market in Mastaba district of Hajja governorate," UNICEF said in a statement.

The UN agency urged all parties "to fully respect their obligations under international humanitarian and human rights laws".

More than 2,000 children have been killed and wounded in the past year in Yemen, it added.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon on Wednesday demanded an investigation into the bombing, calling it "one of the deadliest - reportedly killing and wounding scores of civilians, including women and children - since the start of the conflict".

Alleged humanitarian law violations

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.

In November, the New York-based watchdog estimated 2,500 Yemeni civilians had died in coalition strikes since last March.

The alliance 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.

In February, a coalition air strike on a market northeast of rebel-held capital Sanaa killed at least 30 rebels and civilians, according to witnesses.

Loyalists backed by the coalition regained control of four southern provinces last summer, including Aden, the temporary base of the government. 

But forces loyal to President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi have struggled to maintain security in these provinces as militants take advantage of the conflict to gain ground in the south. 

On Thursday, al-Qaeda fighters shot dead three people accused of witchcraft in a public execution in Hadramawt, an official in the south-eastern province said.

Coalition warplanes targeted militants in Aden at the weekend for the first time since March last year.

The rebels have controlled Sanaa since September 2014.

The World Health Organisation says more than 6,200 people have been killed in the conflict since March 2015 and the United Nations has warned of a "human catastrophe unfolding in Yemen".