Deadly blast in Pakistan market casts shadow on Taliban peace talks

A bomb attack on a fruit market on the outskirts of Islamabad killed at least 21 people. Pakistan is currently holding peace talks with the Taliban, which has denied responsibility.

B.K. Bangash/AP
Police cordon off the area of a blast in Islamabad, Pakistan, Wednesday, April 9, 2014. A bomb ripped through a fruit and vegetable market on the outskirts of the Pakistani capital of Islamabad on Wednesday morning, killing scores of people and leaving dozens more wounded, officials said.

A bomb ripped through a fruit and vegetable market on the outskirts of the Pakistani capital of Islamabad on Wednesday morning, killing at least 21 people and leaving dozens more wounded, officials said.

The massive blast was the latest attack to shake Pakistan even as government negotiations with the Taliban pick up pace in an attempt by the authorities to resolve years of deadly fighting that has killed tens of thousands of people in the northwest.

The bomb went off as morning shoppers were buying supplies at the market, located on the outskirts of Islamabad. The power of the blast sent cartons of fruit and vegetables flying. Police quickly cordoned off the scene, which was littered with guavas, shoes, and prayer caps. Blood stained the ground in many areas.

"I saw body parts flying in the air," said one of the fruit traders, Afzal Khan. "People were dying. People were crying. People were running."

The dead and the wounded were taken to nearby hospitals.

Nineteen of the dead were taken to the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences in Islamabad, said an emergency room doctor, Zulfikar Ghauri. He said the hospital was also treating 56 people who were wounded in the bombing. Two bodies and 31 wounded were taken to Holy Family Hospital in the nearby city of Rawalpindi said Tahir Sharif, a doctor there.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility, and the Pakistani Taliban in a statement emailed to reporters denied they were behind the attack. The militant group said it was sticking to a previously agreed-to ceasefire.

Police and officers from the bomb disposal squad were scanning the area for more devices. The approximately 11 pounds of explosives were hidden in a fruit carton, said a police official, Yasin Malik.

The market is located near a makeshift camp for people displaced from fighting in Pakistan's northwest, as well as refugees from Afghanistan. It's also next to a supermarket that sells food and household items to the capital's middle class families.

"I saw people lying there. The people were torn apart. Their body parts scattered," said Abdul Jalil, frantically searching for his brother who works at the market. Cell phone calls to the brother were not going through "Who are these people killing innocent people? What do they get out of it? God will not forgive them."

Rare attack on capital

While large bombings happen frequently in Pakistani cities such as the northwestern city of Peshawar or the southern port city of Karachi, they are relatively rare in the capital, which is home to diplomats, generals and top government officials.

The symbolism of having such a deadly attack in Islamabad — even in an area on the edge of the city and rarely frequented by its elite — is a blow to a Pakistani government trying to increase foreign investment and project an air of security in the capital.

For Islamabad, it was the most deadly day since a March 3 attack on a court complex killed 11 people. That attack was claimed by a little-known splinter group called Ahrar-ul-Hind.

Attacks like Wednesday's have continued even as the negotiations between the government and the Taliban have picked up pace, leading to questions about whether the militant group is in full control of various factions that could be behind the attacks.

Dr. Tariq Fazal Chaudhry, a lawmaker from the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-N party, said it was difficult to say which group was behind the explosion until police complete their investigation.

Asked what the intended target was, he said: "I think peace in Pakistan is the target."

Taliban talks

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif came to power last May promising to end the years of bloodshed through negotiation instead of military operations.

Government negotiators held direct talks with the Taliban on March 26 at an undisclosed location in the tribal areas, and on Saturday the government announced that Pakistan would release 13 Taliban prisoners to facilitate the talks. The militants have also declared a temporary ceasefire.

But many observers question whether it's possible to come to a peace deal with the militants, who they contend have used previous peace deals to simply regroup and fight another day.

Critics also point out that the Tehrik-e-Taliban, as the Pakistani Taliban are formally called, is made up of numerous factions and even if the umbrella organization agrees to a peace deal, it doesn't mean all the factions will.

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