PESHAWAR, Pakistan -- A massive car bomb in Peshawar, the third in a particularly bloody week for the northwestern Pakistani city, killed at least 32 people and wounded more than 80 on Sunday in a crowded market some 350 yards from where a memorial service was being held for the victims of last week’s church bombing.
[Updated, 8:14 a.m. PDT Sept. 29: Authorities later said the death toll had risen to 43, and doctors at Lady Reading Hospital have confirmed receiving 101 wounded patients. Also Sunday, in northwest Pakistan, a rocket from a suspected U.S. drone hit a house in the Dergah Mandi area near the Afghan border of North Waziristan, killing six people and wounding three. The dead and wounded reportedly were affiliated with Taliban leader Qari Abbas, who was killed in a suspected U.S. drone strike while traveling in a car in the same area.]
Bomb squad head Shafqat Malik said the bomb was planted in a car parked in front of a small hotel in the Qissa Khwani bazaar, the city’s oldest and one of its biggest. The device used approximately 440 pounds of explosives and was detonated by remote control, he added, leaving a crater five-feet deep.
"This car was converted into a bomb,” Malik told reporters at the site. “Sometimes [the terrorists] are successful and sometimes we are.”
Pedestrians were just starting to do their Sunday shopping shortly before noon when the blast occurred near a mosque and a police station, witnesses said, destroying shops, cars and rickshaws and shattering lives. Six children and two women were reportedly among the dead. Officials said, based on an initial assessment, the police station was not the intended target.
No one took immediate responsibility, although suspicion fell on the Taliban, which earlier claimed responsibility for the two other bombings this week. Analysts said the confluence of three relatively large attacks in quick succession appeared to be part of a campaign waged by the Taliban to discredit possible peace talks with the government.
Two of the attacks, against Christians a week ago that killed 82 and Sunday’s killing of more than two dozen shoppers, appeared aimed at ordinary citizens, a worrying trend. The other attack on Friday, which killed 18 mostly mid-level government employees returning from work, followed a more predictable pattern of targeting symbols of the state.
Less than a half mile from Sunday’s blast site, worshipers at All Saints Church were gathered for a memorial service exactly a week after two suicide bombers blew themselves up as members of the congregation came out of Sunday service. The week-earlier attack sparked nationwide protests among Christians and members of Pakistan’s civil society demanding better protection for minorities.
Syed Jamil Shah, a spokesman for Lady Reading Hospital, the city’s largest, said Sunday the facility was treating at least 82 people from the bazaar bombing in addition to 32 bodies it was handling. Hospitals in South Asia often act as de facto morgues.
The death toll could rise, Shah added, because many of those wounded arrived in critical condition. Local television footage showed wounded lining the halls of the overwhelmed emergency room wing, relatives searching desperately for their loved ones and men carrying coffins into the medical center.
Rescue worker Niaz Wali rushed to the market to help the wounded shortly after the powerful blast when a small secondary explosion went off, inflicting shrapnel wounds on his face. Wali said he saw bits of flesh scattered around the blast site along with several dead bodies.
Peshawar, the capital of militant-wracked northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province bordering Afghanistan, has been headed by cricket star turned politician Imran Khan since May. “Imran Khan promised people he would bring peace to the province,” Wali said, calling on the government to rid the area of warmongers. “Just where is his peace plan?”
Local television footage showed thick black smoke pouring from the busy market as a fireman struggled to extinguish a burning motorbike with a yellow hose. In another sequence an automobile, upended by the blast, was completely charred as one of its blown-off tires burned a few feet away in the road.
Two weeks ago, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif secured the support of several political parties to initiate talks with the Taliban aimed at containing the violence. But a series of attacks since then, including the assassination of a general near the Afghan border, and escalating militant demands, have caused many Pakistanis to question this strategy.
Among the Taliban’s list of pre-conditions for talks include the release of all Taliban prisoners from jail, the end of all drone strikes and the removal of all troops from areas where militants are strong. The Taliban, which has repeatedly rejected Pakistan's constitution and called for war with India, aims to set up a hard-line Islamic state based on sharia law.
Sharif is scheduled to meet with his Indian counterpart, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly on Sunday, just hours after Singh referred to Pakistan as the “epicenter of terrorism in our region.” In a message from New York, Sharif strongly condemned the Peshawar bombing as an attack on humanity.
Special correspondent Ali reported from Peshawar and staff writer Magnier from Lahore. Special correspondent Nasir Khan contributed from Islamabad.