A suspected Taliban car bomb exploded in a Pakistan market today killing more than 90 people, mostly women and children, as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived to pledge support for the campaign against Islamist militants.
More than 200 people were wounded in the blast in the main north-western city of Peshawar, the deadliest in a series of attacks by suspected this month.
The government blamed militants seeking to avenge an army offensive launched this month against al Qaida and Taliban in their stronghold close to the Afghan border.
The bomb destroyed much of the Mina Bazaar in Peshawar’s old town, a warren of narrow alleys clogged with stalls and shops selling dresses, toys and cheap jewellery that drew many female shoppers and children.
It collapsed buildings, including a mosque, and set scores of shops ablaze. The wounded sat amid burning debris and parts of bodies as a huge plume of grey smoke rose above the city.
Crying for help, men tried to pull survivors from beneath wreckage. One man carried away a baby with a bloody face and a group of men rescued a young boy covered in dust, but others found only bodies of the dead. A two-storey building collapsed as firefighters doused it with water, triggering more panic.
Mrs Clinton, on her first visit to Pakistan as secretary of state, was a three-hour drive away in the capital, Islamabad, when the blast took place. She praised the army’s anti-Taliban offensive in South Waziristan and offered support.
“I want you to know this fight is not Pakistan’s alone,” she said. “These extremists are committed to destroying what is dear to us as much as they are committed to destroying that which is dear to you and to all people. So this is our struggle as well.”
Standing beside her, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said the violence would not break his government’s will to fight back.
“The resolve and determination will not be shaken,” Qureshi said. “People are carrying out such heinous crimes – they 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.”
Peshawar, the economic hub of the north-west and the seat of the provincial government, has long been a favourite target of militants who control large parts of territory to the north in tribal regions near the Afghanistan border. Extremism has flourished there since it was used as a staging ground in the 1980s for US-funded fighters preparing to battle the Soviet-installed regime in Afghanistan.
No group claimed responsibility for the bombing, but that is not unusual, especially when the victims are Pakistani civilians. Sahib Gul, a doctor at a nearby hospital, said 91 people were killed and more than 200 injured. He said 60 of the dead were either women or children.
Three bombs have exploded in Peshawar this month, including one that killed more than 50 people.
They are part of at least 10 major attacks in Pakistan that have killed 250 people either claimed by or blamed on Taliban militants.
Most have targeted security forces, but some bombs have gone off in public places, apparently to undercut support for the army’s assault on the border and expose the weakness of the government.
The Taliban have warned Pakistan that they would stage more attacks if the army does not end its ground offensive in the South Waziristan tribal region, where the military has sent 30,000 troops to flush out insurgents. South Waziristan is a major base for the Pakistani Taliban and other foreign militants.