ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- A separatist group from the restive southwestern province of Baluchistan has claimed responsibility for a powerful explosion that ripped through a crowded fruit and vegetable market in Islamabad on Wednesday, killing at least 23 people.
Mureed Baluch, a spokesman for the United Baluch Army, told journalists by phone that the bombing was retaliation for ongoing attacks by Pakistani security forces on rebel hideouts in Baluchistan’s Kalat district.
The group also claimed responsibility for bombing a train in the Sibi district of Baluchistan on Tuesday. That blast killed at least 17 people and injured more than 40.
Pakistani authorities declared the group a terrorist organization in 2006.
Various Baluch nationalist organizations have been waging a low-level insurgency against the Pakistani government for years, routinely attacking trains, security forces and government installations in Baluchistan.
But an attack in Islamabad was alarming, said Salim Shahid, a journalist based in Baluchistan's provincial capital, Quetta. “This is the first attack of its kind in Islamabad by the UBA,” he said.
The insurgents accuse Pakistani security forces of human-rights abuses such as illegal detentions, torture and executions of ethnic Baluch civilians, charges the government denies.
A witness said Wednesday’s explosion happened at about 8:10 a.m., during peak business hours. Muhammad Ismail, a broker at the market, estimated that he was about 220 yards from the blast.
"There were at least 200 people around the point where the bomb ripped off. I heard a huge blast, which was followed by huge smoke. I saw cut limbs of people flying in front of my eyes. There was blood and cries," he said. "We rushed to the point to help people. Most of them had lost their limbs. It was horrible. A friend of mine died right in front of my eyes."
In addition to the 23 people killed, more than 100 were injured, according to Islamabad Police Chief Khalid Khattak.
He said nine to 10 pounds of explosive material were planted in a crate of guava fruit. “The brokers in the market were auctioning the fruit when the bomb went off," he said.
Fruit and vegetable traders blamed shoddy security for the attack. “There are no police officials deployed at the market. It is an open-for-all place,” said trader Abdullah Khan.
Khattak defended the security measures, saying that it was not possible to check every vehicle and every person coming into a market.
The death toll could rise. Javed Akram, head of the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences, where the majority of victims were brought, told journalists that nine patients were in critical condition and four others were in very critical condition.
Pakistanis commenting on social media networks initially suspected northern militant groups loosely organized under the banner of the Pakistani Taliban, which issued a statement denouncing the attack. The group’s spokesman, Shahidullah Shahid, called it illegal to target innocent people in public places.
In March, the Pakistani Taliban announced a monthlong cease-fire, which was extended to April 10 to advance peace talks. Pakistani officials have conducted several rounds of talks with the group’s representatives in Islamabad, as well as with members of its central council in the tribal areas.
Sahi is a special correspondent.