Deadly suicide blast at market in northwest Shia town

A suicide car bombing at a market in a predominantly Shia town in northwestern Pakistan killed at least 33 people and possibly dozens as the blast tore through shops and damaged vehicles on Friday, police sources said.


AFP - A suicide car bomb tore through a Pakistan market, killing 33 people and trapping victims under smashed shops on Friday as families bought supplies for a major religious festival, police said.

The explosion flung body parts across the bazaar and gutted shops in Ustarzai, a small mainly Shiite northwest town which lies between the garrison city of Kohat and Hangu, another town with a history of sectarian unrest.

A spokesman for the little known Lashkar-i-Jhangvi al Almi militant group claimed the attack. Northwest Pakistan is rife with sectarian violence and Islamist militants, branded by the United States as an existential threat.

The area was packed with shoppers buying food and delicacies for the weekend and the Muslim Eid al-Fitr holiday, which Pakistanis expect to start on Monday with the sighting of the new moon after the fasting month of Ramadan.

Bodies lay on the road and casualties were trapped under the debris from shops that caved in after the blast when the bomber rammed a jeep packed with 150 kilograms (330 pounds) of explosives into another vehicle, police said.

Sohail Ahmad, a shopkeeper in the market whose left leg was broken in the attack, told AFP that he blacked out.

"I was standing in front of my shop when all of a sudden, a car blew up outside a restaurant. I went unconscious. I don't remember anything else. When I came round, I was in hospital," Ahmad said from his hospital bed.

Police spokesman Fazal Naeem in nearby Kohat said 33 people were killed and 56 others were wounded.

"There are 33 dead and more than 50 injured. Twenty-five have been identified while the rest are in a very bad condition. The bodies have been completely damaged," said a North West Frontier Province police spokesman.

Police said the bomber came from the nearby Orakzai, the tribal district home of Pakistan's new Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud who has vowed to avenge the death of his predecessor Baitullah Mehsud, who was killed in a US drone strike.

"This is a Shiite-dominated area and we cannot rule out the possibility that this was a sectarian-motivated attack," said police officer Ali Hasan.

Soon after the blast, Shiite youths took control of the bazaar and attacked two police vehicles with sticks and chanted slogans condemning the Taliban and the Pakistani government, witnesses said.

Shiites account for about 20 percent of Pakistan's mostly Sunni Muslim population of 167 million. More than 4,000 people have died in outbreaks of sectarian violence since the late 1980s.

"Dozens of shops were destroyed. Their roofs caved in and many people were trapped under the debris," said Hasan.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani condemned the "cowardly act of terrorism" and said the government was determined to "stamp out the menace of terrorism and militancy from the country".

Pakistan claims to have cleared the Taliban from the northwestern districts of Buner, Lower Dir and Swat after a blistering assault when militants advanced to within 100 kilometres (60 miles) of the capital Islamabad.

Government troops have also launched military operations against a local Taliban-linked warlord in the semi-autonomous Khyber tribal region, which lies on the main supply route for Western troops in neighbouring Afghanistan.

Pakistani helicopters attacked rebel hideouts in Khyber and Orakzai on Friday, killing 13 militants and destroying two hideouts, the paramilitary Frontier Corps said in a statement.

The United States says Islamist fighters are hiding in the Pakistani mountains near the Afghan border, plotting attacks on Western targets and crossing the porous frontier to attack foreign troops in Afghanistan.

Taliban and Al-Qaeda rebels fled Afghanistan after the 2001 US-led invasion, carving out boltholes and training camps in Pakistan's remote mountains.

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