A crowded market in the centre of Peshawar became a scene of devastation yesterday after a suicide bomber set off a massive blast that killed at least 49 people and wounded scores more.
The attack, which struck in the Pakistani city's famous Khyber bazaar, was the deadliest for six months and again underlined the enduring ability of militants to launch lethal assaults. The incident came days after a suicide bomber slipped through security to detonate a device that killed five people at the offices of the UN World Food Programme in Islamabad.
Last night, officials said the attack highlighted the need to press ahead with plans to launch a military operation on the stronghold of the militants in South Waziristan. The military, which has been preparing for the operation for months, confirmed this week that an assault was imminent.
"The country has no other option but to carry out an operation in South Waziristan," the Interior Minister Rehman Malik told a local television channel. "We will have to proceed. All roads are leading to South Waziristan ... One thing is clear – these hired assassins called Taliban are to be dealt with more severely."
The bomb was detonated at midday when the market was packed with people, and left the charred skeleton of a bus turned over on its side in the middle of the road. The twisted remains of a motorbike lay nearby.
Passers-by rushed to cover the bodies of victims whose clothes had been burned off. "I saw a blood-soaked leg landing close to me," Noor Alam – who suffered wounds to his legs and face, and was at a hospital overrun with casualties – told the Associated Press.
"I understood for the first time in my life what doomsday would look like."
Police said they believe the attacker had been in a car packed with a large amount of explosives and artillery rounds. "Death has to come one day, but we will keep chasing these terrorists, and this attack cannot deter our resolve," said the regional information minister, Mian Iftikhar Hussain, who visited the scene.
Pakistan is under pressure from the US to extend its operations against militants blamed for cross-border attacks on Western troops in Afghanistan. With the US-led operation there faltering and public discontent growing, Washington believes Pakistan can do more to halt such operations. Many in the US are suspicious of links between elements within Pakistan's military and intelligence establishment and militants, who are still considered strategic assets, and who have been largely left alone as they rarely attack targets inside the country.