PESHAWAR, Oct 29 – Northwest Pakistan plunged into mourning on Thursday after one of the bloodiest attacks in the nation killed 105 people, eclipsing a peace mission by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The carnage caps a month of escalating bloodshed in the nuclear-armed Muslim nation where a full security alert was unable to stop a car laden with explosives blowing up a Peshawar market, pulling down buildings and slaughtering shoppers.
Many of those killed in the city, which neighbours Pakistan’s Al-Qaeda and Taliban-infested tribal belt on the Afghan border, were women and children.
There has been no claim of responsibility, but a barrage of recent attacks has forced Pakistan to press 30,000 troops into a ground offensive against homegrown Taliban fighters hiding out in the forbidding mountains of South Waziristan.
"A total of 105 people have been killed. Seventy-one of them were identified. Thirteen are children and 27 were women," Doctor Zafar Iqbal told AFP at the Lady Reading Hospital. There were 217 registered wounded.
"There are still 134 wounded people in the hospital here. The rest were taken to other hospitals or were sent home," said Iqbal.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon led international outrage over the "appalling" bomb and the loss of so many lives, which came just hours after a Taliban assault on a UN-approved hostel in the Afghan capital.
Mass funerals were scheduled to take place on Thursday in this conservative city of 2.5 million dominated by ethnic Pashtuns, where anger mounted at the barbarity of an attack that killed women and children indiscriminately.
Relatives of the dead beat their heads in grief as traders announced three days of mourning, shuttering bazaars and shops.
"There were 19 funeral prayers offered last night. The rest are today," said Sahibzada Mohammad Anees, a senior local administrative official.
"All of the shutters will be down for three days. We announced a three-day mourning period," said Ghufran Ullah, president of the traders’ association.
The blast, the most serious since an attack targeting ex-prime minister Benazir Bhutto in October 2007, underscored the gravity of the extremist threat destabilising the nuclear-armed Muslim state.
The latest carnage, coupled with America’s bloodiest month in Afghanistan, stoked political demands in the United States for President Barack Obama to take swifter action on deploying more troops.
"We watch this situation continue to deteriorate while this long protracted process of decision-making goes on," Republican Senator John McCain, Obama’s rival in last year’s presidential election, told CBS.
"We are not operating in a vacuum. The president of the United States needs to make this decision and soon. Our allies are nervous and our military leadership is becoming frustrated."
Clinton, unveiling a 215 million dollar energy investment and trying to fend off fierce Pakistani criticism of US policies, expressed solidarity after the attack and called for a new partnership.
"This is our struggle as well," said Clinton, condemning the "tenacious and brutal extremist groups who kill innocent people and terrorise communities".
"We will give you the help that you need," Clinton told a joint news conference with Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, who insisted the country was unswerving in its fight against those responsible.
But the attack overshadowed the message of solidarity she sought to convey on the most high-profile US visit since President Barack Obama put Pakistan at the heart of the fight against Al-Qaeda and made the war in Afghanistan a priority.
A Pakistani lawmaker told journalists that the Peshawar attack was deliberately timed to coincide with Clinton’s visit.
"Clearly, this was organised for the day of her arrival," said the lawmaker, who requested anonymity.
A rising number of audacious attacks has shown Al-Qaeda and Taliban-linked extremists can target anyone in their furious backlash against the US-led "war on terror" that has killed more than 2,370 people since July 2007.
The United States has welcomed the assault being pressed by about 30,000 Pakistani troops against homegrown Taliban in South Waziristan, part of the tribal belt where US officials say Al-Qaeda is plotting attacks on the West.
But Islamabad’s relationship with the United States has been tested by US drone attacks on Pakistani soil and feelings of mistrust.