Car bomb kills more than 80, wounds 200 in Pakistan
The locale of the latest spasm of violence to strike Pakistan -- a car bomb attack that killed 100 people -- wasn’t surprising. Perched on the fringe of the Taliban-infested badlands along the Afghan border, Peshawar has been hit several times by bombings that have claimed scores of lives this year.
But the target Wednesday marked a disturbing twist in the Islamic militants’ agenda: a bustling market that catered to women, many of them with children in tow.
The blast, fueled by an estimated 220 pounds of explosives, ripped through the Meena Bazaar, a warren of fabric stalls, cosmetics shops and clothing stores that teems with women on afternoon shopping trips. More than 200 people were injured in the explosion, the deadliest terrorist strike ever in the city of 3 million. Several buildings along the market’s narrow street were leveled, and the attack sent shock waves through a country already made weary by a monthlong campaign of violence that has now claimed at least 280 lives -- 167 of them in Peshawar.
At Lady Reading Hospital, wards were filled with badly wounded women, some with their injured children in the next beds.
“There was a massive blast, and then the roof of the fabric shop I was in fell on me,” said Sameena, 18, who suffered a broken leg and broken hand. Like many Pashtun Pakistanis, she uses one name. “I saw shops burning, smoke and dead bodies everywhere, many of them women. These people are inhuman. They want to keep women inside homes. And they want to kill women.”
The attack overshadowed the first day of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s three-day visit to Pakistan to discuss the fight against militants and to counter growing anti-American sentiment here.
At a news conference in Islamabad, the capital, Clinton condemned Wednesday’s violence, calling it “cowardly.”
“We feel strongly that the extremists and terrorists who deploy such violence have to be defeated wherever they are,” she said. “This is a fight that cannot be avoided.”
Suicide bombings and commando-style attacks have ravaged the country in the last month, a wave of violence that Pakistani officials say is the Taliban’s answer to the government’s decision to mount an all-out offensive to drive the militant group from South Waziristan, a rugged, underdeveloped region along the Afghan border.
Pakistani military leaders say the offensive, which includes 30,000 ground troops supported by airstrikes from fighter jets and helicopter gunships, has made hard-fought advances into Taliban-held territory. On Saturday, troops seized control of Kotkai, the home village of Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mahsud and Qari Hussain Mahsud, a top deputy responsible for training suicide bombers. The military claims it has killed more than 230 militants in 12 days of fighting. At least 29 soldiers have died since the offensive began Oct. 17.
The Taliban, meanwhile, has followed through on its promise to unleash a vicious wave of attacks aimed at eroding support for the offensive. The strikes included a bold assault on the Pakistani army’s headquarters in the garrison city of Rawalpindi on Oct. 10 that left 14 security officers and civilian workers dead.
Speaking alongside Clinton at the news conference in Islamabad, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said the Taliban’s retaliatory strikes would not deter Pakistan from continuing its offensive in South Waziristan.
“The resolve and determination will not be shaken,” Qureshi said. “People who carry out such heinous crimes want to shake our resolve. I want to address them: We will not buckle. We will fight you. We will fight you because we want peace and stability in Pakistan.”
In making her first visit to Pakistan as secretary of State, Clinton was hoping to allay fears among Pakistanis that a $7.5-billion aid package to Pakistan recently approved by Congress would not be used by Washington as a means of exerting control over the nuclear-armed state.
The legislation, signed by President Obama on Oct. 15, rankled Pakistan’s military, which bristled at language in the bill that called for greater civilian supervision over the military as a prerequisite for the aid.
Both Qureshi and Clinton talked of the need to expand the U.S.-Pakistani relationship beyond the war on terrorism so that it encompasses revitalization of Pakistan’s economy and infrastructure, particularly the dilapidated electricity generation and distribution network.
“In this time of economic challenges, we want to help you in what you believe is best for your country,” Clinton said. “We want to help with jobs and infrastructure that will create investment.”
The attack in Peshawar, however, served as a grim reminder that terrorism remains at the forefront of the agenda between the countries.
Peshawar’s police chief, Liaquat Ali Khan, said investigators were trying to determine whether the blast was detonated by a suicide bomber or by remote control. Witnesses reported seeing a car passing through the bazaar and being parked just before it exploded, Khan said. Survivors interviewed at the hospital said that after the blast, black smoke enveloped the area and flames shot out from fabric stores and second-story apartments.
Zainab Saleem, 21, was at the bazaar trying to flag a motorcycle rickshaw when the explosion occurred. Her 2-year-old son, Mohammed, survived, but her 45-year-old aunt was killed and a 12-year-old girl who works at her house lost one of her legs.
“It was total destruction,” said Saleem, hospitalized with two badly broken legs. “I heard a huge blast, and then suddenly walls were falling on top of me. I saw so many dead bodies.”
Mohammed Zubair, a salesman at a cosmetics shop in the bazaar, said storekeepers had been warned by police several days ago to close down because of the threat of a bombing.
“But we are poor people, and we have no option,” said Zubair, 32, recovering from burns to his face and neck and a deep gash in his abdomen. “We knew there were threats, but we had no choice but to stay open.”