The deadliest bomb attack in Pakistan for two years tore through the city of Peshawar yesterday just hours after Hilary Clinton arrived in the country to pledge the support of the US in a fight against militants that officials are increasingly framing as a fight for the nation's survival. Women and children were said to make up the majority of those killed.
Three hours after Mrs Clinton's plane touched down for her first visit as Secretary of State, a car bomb struck a busy market in the old quarter of the northwestern city killing 96 people and wounding more than 200. The bomb, detonated amid the crowded streets of the Mina Bazaar, caused massive damage and stunned residents. People trapped in the rubble and debris cried for help as others tried to pull them free.
Emerging from a meeting in the capital, Islamabad, less than two hours drive away, a resolute-looking Mrs Clinton told reporters: "I want you to know this fight is not Pakistan's alone. 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."
The bomb, the deadliest since a massive blast killed around 140 people in Karachi when former prime minister Benazir Bhutto returned to Pakistan in October 2007 only to die in another attack two months later, is the latest incident in an seemingly unstoppable wave of violence to have to have flooded Pakistan as government troops undertake a crucial operation against militants in South Waziristan. Almost 300 people have been killed in the last month, with the seemingly daily bombings or shootings and the ability of militants to cause large casualties triggering anxiety across the nation.
"There was a deafening sound and I was like a blind man for a few minutes," Mohammad Usman, who was wounded in the attack, told the Associated Press. "I heard women and children crying and started to help others. There was the smell of human flesh in the air."
Ahead of Ms Clinton's visit, many residents of Islamabad feared they could be the victims of another attack. As it was, militants instead struck the provincial capital of Peshawar for the third time in a month, the bomb going off in an area packed with stalls and shops selling clothes and cheap toys and subsequently popular with mothers and their children.
A reporter for the BBC's Urdu service reported harrowing scenes at the emergency rooms of Lady Reading hospital in Peshawar. There were so many casualties that beds had run out and many injured were being treated on the floor. One unattended four year old's head and legs were covered in wounds.
Ahead of the long-anticipated operation in South Waziristan, militants had warned that they would carry out targets against military and establishment targets. Yet the violence perpetrated against ordinary citizens – earlier this month another bazaar in Peshawar was attacked with 50 people killed – has left many feeling helpless and vulnerable. Across the country, ordinary citizens say they believe the violence is linked to the operation to crush Taliban and al-Qa'ida militants and yet there is little they can do to keep themselves safe.
While the operation in South Waziristan is focusing on destroying fighters loyal to the assassinated Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, so it appears the tactics of militants is to sap public support for the operation and thus halt the military. In Pakistan's cities, roadblocks and security checks have been considerably increased and yet for now it appears the militants are winning. Their tactics seem to change more rapidly than the response of the authorities.
The government says it will not be the first to blink. Appearing before reporters with Mrs Clinton, Pakistan's foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, said the wave of violence would not break the government's will. "The resolve and determination will not be shaken," he added. "People are carrying out such heinous crimes – they want to shake our resolve. We will not buckle. We will fight you. We will fight you because we want peace and stability in Pakistan."