A powerful car bomb blast at a movie house in the northwestern city of Peshawar killed six people Friday and injured 75, raising fears here that gains made by Pakistani troops against Taliban militants entrenched in the volatile Swat Valley will be answered with a wave of attacks in urban areas.
The explosion outside the Tasveer Mahal cinema on one of Peshawar's most traffic-choked streets was the second in a week in the provincial capital. On Saturday, a car bomb killed 13 people.
The army's offensive in the Swat Valley and surrounding districts in the country's northwest appears to be gaining support from many people weary of the Taliban insurgency and its spread beyond the tribal areas that border Afghanistan. That public support has been buoyed by advances that the Pakistani military says it has made on Taliban strongholds.
Military officials say they have cleared the Buner and Lower Dir districts of Taliban fighters, and have since encircled Swat's main city, Mingora, where Taliban militants remained holed up. They also have begun destroying concrete bunkers and networks of tunnels that Taliban militants had built in towns and villages they used as bases.
Increasingly, however, Pakistanis have worried that the offensive may trigger retaliatory attacks from the Taliban, including suicide bomb blasts and car bombings in major cities.
"Such incidents will increase in coming days if the government does not stop the operation in Swat and change its policy," said Mohammed Iqbal, a Peshawar political activist.
Support for the offensive is also tempered by the burgeoning humanitarian crisis caused by the exodus of nearly 2 million people fleeing the fighting. Many of the fleeing Pakistanis have sought refuge with relatives or friends, but more than 160,000 have jammed into tent camps outside the northwestern city of Mardan as well as Peshawar and on the outskirts of Islamabad, the capital.
People escaping the conflict are also appearing in larger numbers in cities as far away as the southern port metropolis of Karachi and Lahore, near the eastern border with India.
Amid sweltering heat, overwhelmed aid workers are struggling to supply adequate food and healthcare to the throngs at the camps.
The United Nations has appealed to the international community for $543 million in emergency relief for people displaced by the fighting. On Friday, Martin Mogwanja, acting U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Pakistan, said the exodus of Pakistanis "is extraordinary in terms of size and speed, and has caused incredible suffering. We are calling for generous support from the international community."
The United States this week pledged $110 million in emergency aid. At a donors conference Thursday in Islamabad, officials announced a total of $224 million in international pledges.
Pakistan's humanitarian crisis could deepen if its government expands the military offensive into North and South Waziristan, regions on the western border with Afghanistan that are major strongholds for the Taliban. Remarks by Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari to a British newspaper about a possible expansion of the offensive into Waziristan sparked some people in the tribal areas to flee.
This week, local officials began setting up two camps outside South Waziristan in anticipation of a new wave of displaced people.
In Peshawar, police and medical teams responding to the car bombing at the cinema Friday scrambled to rush the wounded to hospitals.
The blast, powered by what city Police Chief Safwat Ghayur said was about 140 pounds of explosives, tore into storefronts and damaged several cars. The cinema was packed with moviegoers, but most of the dead and injured were passersby.
Militants have targeted movie theaters in the region in the past, charging that the cinemas violate the tenets of Islam.
Pakistan's Dawn News television channel reported that some theaters in the area have recently received threats from the Taliban, and that a few theater owners have shut down.
Ali is a special correspondent.