Reporting from Islamabad, Pakistan, and Peshawar, Pakistan -- A suicide bombing at a crowded courthouse in Peshawar killed 19 people Thursday, the 10th such attack in six weeks for a city bearing the brunt of retaliation from Taliban militants battling Pakistani troops along the Afghan border.
Now in its fifth week, Pakistan’s military offensive has succeeded in retaking much of the ground held by Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters in South Waziristan, for years the militants’ primary stronghold. That success, however, has been tempered by a wave of militant attacks since early October that has claimed more than 300 lives across Pakistan.
Peshawar, a city of 3 million people on the fringe of Pakistan’s largely ungoverned tribal areas, has been hardest hit by the violence. Suicide bombers have struck bustling markets, police stations and checkpoints, and even the regional headquarters of the country’s vaunted intelligence agency.
With Thursday’s strike, the death toll from the attacks around the city since early October has reached at least 247.
Authorities said the attacker tried to push his way into the city’s judicial complex but was stopped by police officers at the courthouse’s main gate. When they tried to search him, he detonated a jacket filled with explosives, said Sahibzada Muhammad Anees, a Peshawar city official.
At least three of those killed were police officers. The blast occurred about 10:30 a.m., when the building was filled with people shuttling between courtrooms. Doctors said several lawyers were among the critically injured taken to the city’s Lady Reading Hospital. At least 51 people were injured.
Authorities said the toll would have been far higher if the police officers at the gate had not stopped the attacker. It was the third time in five days that police in the Peshawar region kept an attacker from causing far greater loss of life. Suicide car bomb attacks Saturday and Monday occurred at police checkpoints on the outskirts of the city, which authorities believe were not the intended targets.
Nevertheless, the wave of attacks has cast a pall on Peshawar, where residents are limiting their trips to markets and many parents are keeping their children home from school. Dozens of streets have been closed off with barricades.
Local officials blame much of the violence in Peshawar on the national government’s decision to announce its intent to launch an offensive against the Taliban in South Waziristan weeks before sending troops into the region. That gave militants ample time to escape and seek refuge in places such as Peshawar’s suburbs. Many of the attacks in the city are being launched from those suburbs.
“If you look at Peshawar, it’s a hub for dozens of smaller towns,” said Imtiaz Gul, a security analyst based in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital. “To create a scare, the easiest place to hit is Peshawar. What you need is penetration into the militants’ networks in the suburbs, and that’s missing right now. We don’t have the required intelligence resources. There have been arrests, but that’s not enough.”
Authorities have beefed up security throughout the northwestern city and have begun using sophisticated explosives-detection equipment at checkpoints, but the large number of entry points to the city -- at least 110 -- makes it extremely difficult to thwart every potential bomb attack.
“We are facing an extraordinary situation,” said Anees, the city official. “Police are there, but it’s not humanly possible to check each and every person.”
Ali is a special correspondent.