Suspected militants exploded a car bomb in a market crowded with women and children Wednesday, killing 100 people and turning shops selling wedding dresses, toys and jewelry into a mass of burning debris and bodies.
The attack in the northwestern city of Peshawar was Pakistan's deadliest since 2007 and came as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited the country to offer support for its fight against a strengthening al-Qaida and Taliban-led insurgency based along the Afghan border.
Clinton was three hours' drive away in the capital meeting Pakistani government leaders when the bomb went off in Peshawar. Her trip was not announced in advance in Pakistan for security reasons.
The bomb was directed squarely at civilians, unlike many previous blasts that have targeted security forces or government or Western interests. While no one claimed responsibility, the bomb appeared aimed at undercutting public and political support for an ongoing army offensive against militants close to the frontier and showing that the government was unable to keep its people safe.
The shaky, U.S.-backed government said the bombing — the latest in a series this month — had strengthened its resolve to press ahead with the assault in the South Waziristan border region, a militant stronghold and a global training and operations hub for al-Qaida.
At least 60 of the dead were women and children. Most security analysts said the attack could backfire on the insurgents and lead more people to inform on them.
"He who kills a Muslim has no place but hell," said Mumtaz Ali, a wounded 19-year-old who was studying in a Muslim school attached to a mosque that was damaged in the attack. "We are taught the way of the prophet. We are not taught to kill innocent people."
The U.S. believes fighting the insurgents on the frontier is vital to defeating extremism in Pakistan as well as in Afghanistan, where Taliban militants with links to those in Pakistan are waging an ever more violent campaign against American and NATO troops.
Underlining the threat in both nations, Taliban militants in suicide vests stormed a guest house used by U.N. staff in the heart of the Afghan capital on Wednesday, killing 11 people — six of them U.N. staff, including one American.
The bombing just before 1:15 p.m. destroyed much of the Mina Bazaar in Peshawar's old town, a warren of narrow alleys clogged with stalls, shops and food sellers. The district drew mostly poor female shoppers and their children in this conservative city.
Fire swept through the area after the blast, sending a cloud of gray smoke into the air.
The wounded sat amid burning debris and parts of bodies. Men tried to pull survivors from beneath wreckage. One carried away a baby with a bloody face and a group of men rescued a young boy covered in dust, but others found only bodies of the dead.
"My son died here," one man cried.
A two-story building collapsed as firefighters doused it with water, causing more panic. Several hours later, people were still searching the debris for loved ones.
"There was a deafening sound, and I was like a blind man for a few minutes," said Mohammad Usman, who was wounded in the shoulder. "I heard women and children crying and started to help others. There was the smell of human flesh in the air."
Mian Iftikhar Hussain, information minister of North West Frontier Province, said 100 people had died and more than 200 were wounded.
Clinton was a few hours into her first visit to Pakistan as secretary of state when the bomb exploded.
"I want you to know this fight is not Pakistan's alone," she said at a news conference that many Pakistani TV stations broadcast alongside images of burning buildings and wounded victims. "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."
Standing beside her, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said the attack would not break the government's will.
"The resolve and determination will not be shaken," Qureshi said. "People are carrying out such heinous crimes. They want to shake our resolve. I want to address them: We will not buckle. We will fight you."
Clinton's three-day visit is designed to get maximum public exposure to improve America's image in a country where many people dislike and distrust the United States. She plans to meet with students, business leaders and opposition figures, as well as government and military leaders.
"It is fair to say there have been a lot of misconceptions about what the United States intends for our relationship with Pakistan," Clinton told reporters flying with her. "It is unfortunate there are those who question our motives. I want to clear the air."
Peshawar, the economic hub of the northwest and the seat of the provincial government, has long been a favorite target of militants who control large parts of nearby tribal regions near the Afghan border.
Extremism has flourished there since it was used as a staging ground in the 1980s for U.S.-funded fighters preparing to battle the Soviet-installed regime in Afghanistan.
The attack brought the death toll from militant bombings or commando-style raids to more than 300 in October alone.
Three blasts have taken place in Peshawar, including another attack in a nearby market that killed 50. The Taliban have claimed the attacks on government, army or Western targets in calls to media organizations, but not ones killing civilians.
It was the deadliest bombing in Pakistan since a suicide bomber hit the homecoming festivities for former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in the southern city of Karachi in October 2007, killing around 150 people. Bhutto was later killed in a separate attack.
Hussain blamed the militants based in South Waziristan for Wednesday's attack.
"We are hitting them at their center of terrorism, and they are hitting back targeting Peshawar," he said. "This is a tough time for us. We are picking up the bodies of our women and children, but we will follow these terrorists and eliminate them."
Khan reported from Peshawar and Burns from Islamabad.© Wire reports