Pakistan shaken as 16 die in latest blast

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The Independent Online

A massive bomb ripped through a crowded fruit and vegetable market in Islamabad yesterday, killing up to 16 people and injuring scores.

A massive bomb ripped through a crowded fruit and vegetable market in Islamabad yesterday, killing up to 16 people and injuring scores.

The bomb was the latest in a series to hit targets in Pakistan but the first in Islamabad this year. The military government called it a terrorist act.

The device was hidden in a crate of grapes that had been imported from Afghanistan. The crate was being loaded for auctioning at the market when the bomb went off.

The dead were mostly retail traders who had been bidding for the grapes. Many of the injured were believed to have been Afghan refugees who were working in the market, loading and unloading crates. The market was in one of the poorer districts of the city.

Ambulances went to the scene to carry away the wounded, but panic stricken shoppers almost caused a stampede in the chaos that followed the blast.

"I heard the explosion and saw fruit flying in the air," said Hasan Khan, a shop owner who was a short distance from the grape stall when the bomb went off. "People started running and screaming. We pulled down the shutters on our shop and left."

Pakistan's military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, said the attack was "a cruel act of terrorism". He asked the authorities to "arrest the culprits and give them an exemplary punishment under the law".

The senior superintendent of police, Nasir Khan Durrani, said: "There has been a series of bomb blasts in the province of Punjab and elsewhere to terrorise the population and it appears to be a link in the same chain."

But Benazir Bhutto, the former Pakistani prime minister now living abroad in self-imposed exile, said it showed "the generals had completely lost control [of] the situation".

Pakistan's biggest cities, including Karachi, Hyderabad and Lahore, have been rocked by more than 40 unsolved bombs this year alone, 13 of which were fatal. Ten people were killed in two explosions in Lahore last week.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for yesterday's bomb. Police detained seven lorry drivers in Islamabad for questioning.

Pakistan blames India for fomenting trouble and sponsoring terrorism to destabilise its arch-rival because of their territorial conflict over Kashmir, which has caused at least two wars and countless border skirmishes between the two states, which now have nuclear arms. Pakistan supports guerrilla groups fighting for Kashmiri separation from India but Delhi has denied any involvement in the recent bombings.

Violence has increased since the military seized power in a coup last October and the government seems impotent to do anything about it. The country is awash with explosives and arms and the police are ill equipped to track down suspects.

Pakistan is also involved in the civil war in neighbouring Afghanistan where it is backing the Taliban movement.

General Musharraf overthrew the elected prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, in last year's military coup. He visited America last week but was greeted with a lot less warmth than his Indian counterpart, who was also at the United Nations summit. He was not granted any formal meetings with US officials and failed to win much support for Pakistan's stance on Kashmir at the UN millennium meeting in New York.

His own return flight to Pakistan had to be delayed because of a bomb threat.