PAKISTAN

Scores killed as bomb rips through Peshawar market

A massive car bomb in a crowded bazaar in the north-western Pakistani city of Peshawar on Friday has killed at least 49 people and injured over 100, police and government officials said.

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AFP - A massive suicide car bomb ripped through a packed market in the Pakistani city of Peshawar on Friday, killing at least 49 people and injuring over 100 in a region beset by Taliban attacks.

The blast, which hit around midday, left charred corpses strewn in a shopping area in the city's main Khyber Bazaar, with cars reduced to burning wreckage and a colourful city bus destroyed and flung on its side.

Interior Minister Rehman Malik blamed the Taliban and said the attack could force the military to bring forward a planned operation to wipe out Islamist militant strongholds in the northwest tribal region bordering Afghanistan.

"They are compelling us to launch the operation in South Waziristan early. We will take a decision on the operation against terrorists over the next few days," he told reporters in Islamabad.

It was the sixth bombing in Peshawar in four months and comes as the Pakistani Taliban have vowed to increase attacks to avenge the killing of their leader Baitullah Mehsud in a US drone strike in August.

"We have 49 dead bodies brought to the hospital. Three of them are women and seven are children," said Doctor Zafar Iqbal, the registrar of Peshawar's main Lady Reading Hospital. All of the dead were civilians, he added.

Senior provincial minister Bashir Ahmad Bilour confirmed the death toll, saying that more than 100 people were injured in the blast. About 50 people remain in serious condition, doctors said.

At the scene, the blackened bodies of victims lay on the street as injured shoppers in torn and blood-soaked clothing were helped from the rubble.

At least 12 shops were completely destroyed in the blast, while passers-by desperately tried to free survivors from a city bus flung onto its side.

Bomb disposal squad chief Shafqat Malik told reporters that police evidence suggested the suicide bomber had rammed a car -- with explosives and machinegun ammunition packed into its side panels -- into the crowded bus.

"There was blood and pieces of human body everywhere. People were crying in pain for help," said Miskeen Khan, who received shrapnel wounds to his face.

Ghulam Nabbi, a shopkeeper at the Khyber Bazaar, told AFP: "It was like somebody threw me out of my shop. For some time my mind stopped working, but then I started running to a safe place."

Police official Mohammad Karim estimated the size of the bomb at about 100 kilogrammes (220 pounds).

"The target was civilians. The Taliban want to pressure government by such attacks, but we will never bow down to them. Operations will continue until the last militant is eliminated," provincial minister Bilour told AFP.

Pakistan's military is wrapping up a fierce offensive against Taliban rebels in the northwestern Swat valley launched in April, and are poised to start a new operation in the semi-autonomous tribal belt on the Afghan border.

The offensives, coupled with an increase in drone attacks by US aircraft targeting Islamists in the northwest, have provoked a furious reaction from the Taliban militia based in the tribal belt.

Despite reports of fierce infighting among the militants after the death of Baitullah Mehsud, the Taliban appear to have regrouped, analysts say, with new commander Hakimullah Mehsud keen to show his strength.

"Increasing militant attacks now reflect that they have found space to regroup and launch fresh attacks," said Ishtiaq Ahmed, an international relations professor at Islamabad's Quaid-i-Azam University.

Peshawar is the main city in the northwest and has been a frequent target of militants linked to Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Pakistan, on the frontline of the United States' war on Al-Qaeda, has been hit by a wave of bombings that have killed nearly 2,200 people across the nuclear-armed country over the past two years.

Friday's blast is the deadliest in Pakistan since March this year, when a suicide bomber attacked a packed mosque in the northwestern town of Jamrud at prayer time, killing around 50 people.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for a suicide attack on Monday on a UN office in Islamabad that killed five aid workers.

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