Bombings in two Pakistan cities killed 46 people yesterday, as militants struck back in the wake of an army offensive against a Taliban stronghold in the northwest near the Afghan border.
Two synchronized bombs ripped through a market popular with women in the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore about 9pm, igniting a massive fire that killed 36 people, authorities said. Hours earlier a suicide bomber killed 10 people outside a courthouse in the northwestern city of Peshawar.
About 100 people were wounded in the attacks in Lahore, which were timed to take place when the Moon Market was as its busiest. Authorities initially said both bombs were believed to be remote-controlled, but they later said a suicide bomber was suspected to have carried out at least one of them.
The blasts came within 30 seconds of each other, leaving dozens of cars and shops ablaze late into the night.
Many victims were women and children, including a dead 2-year-old, a police officer said.
Most of the militant attacks in recent weeks have been directed at security forces, though several have targeted crowded public spaces like markets, apparently to create public anger and increase pressure on the government to call a halt to the offensive. More than 400 people have been killed since the beginning of October, including 105 in a Peshawar market frequented by women. That attack occurred while U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was visiting Pakistan.
The Taliban generally claim responsibility for those attacks killing security officers, but they do not acknowledge carrying out the attacks targeting civilians. Government officials and security analysts say there is little doubt the militants are behind all the attacks.
Moon Market sells women's clothing, shoes and cosmetics.
Lahore's top government official, Khusro Pervaiz, said there were 36 dead and about 100 wounded.
"There was a blast. Then there was another," said Mohammad Nauman, who was bleeding from his nose. "Nobody knew what was happening. Everybody was running. There was fire everywhere."
Lahore is Pakistan's second-largest city. It has been hit several times by militants over the past year, including an attack on the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team and several strikes against security installations.
By attacking Lahore, militants are bringing their war to the heart of Pakistan. The city is the capital of Punjab, Pakistan's most populous province, and is considered the political and cultural center. It is also home to many army regiments because of its location next to the border with India, Pakistan's longtime foe.
The attacks came hours after a suicide bomber killed 10 people outside a courthouse in Peshawar, a northwestern city that has been repeatedly hit by bombings since October. It lies on the main road into the border region, much of which is under the control of al-Qaida and the Taliban.
The attacks have coincided with rising speculation over the future of President Asif Ali Zardari.
The Supreme Court yesterday began examining the legality of an amnesty protecting him and 8,000 other officials from graft prosecution. The amnesty expired last month, and judges must rule on whether to reopen corruption cases against them. Although Zardari has immunity from prosecution as president, some experts say the court could now take up cases challenging his eligibility to run for office.
Zardari is unpopular according to opinion polls and has been criticized for rarely leaving the palace and meeting victims of the Taliban. There have also been media reports of a rift between him and military chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani.
He and Kayani visited a hospital and met soldiers wounded in an attack last week on a mosque used by the army.