PESHAWAR, Pakistan – A car bomb tore through a busy market in northwestern Pakistan on Wednesday, killing 91 people as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited the country and pledged American support for its campaign against Islamist militants.
More than 200 people were wounded in the blast in the main northwestern city of Peshawar, the deadliest in a surge of attacks this month. The government blamed militants seeking to avenge an army offensive launched this month against al-Qaida and Taliban in their stronghold close to the Afghan border.
The bomb destroyed much of a market selling bangles, dresses and toys that was popular with women and children.
It collapsed buildings, including a mosque, and set shops on fire in an old part of the city crisscrossed with narrow alleys and clogged with stalls. Wounded people sat amid burning debris and body parts as a huge plume of gray smoke rose above the city.
Crying for help, men grabbed at the wreckage, trying to pull out survivors trapped beneath. One two-story building collapsed as firefighters doused it with water, triggering more panic.
"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."
Clinton, on her first visit to Pakistan as secretary of state, was a three-hour drive away in the capital, Islamabad, when the blast took place. Speaking to reporters, she praised the army's anti-Taliban offensive in South Waziristan and offered U.S. support.
"I want you to know this fight is not Pakistan's alone," Clinton said. "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."
Appearing with her, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said the violence would not break his government's will to fight back.
"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. We will fight you because we want peace and stability in Pakistan."
No group claimed responsibility for the bombing, but that is not unusual, especially when the victims are Pakistani civilians. Sahib Gul, a doctor at a nearby hospital, said 91 people were killed and more than 200 injured. Many of the victims were women and children.
Three bombs have exploded in Peshawar this month, including another one that killed more than 50 people, part of a barrage of at least 10 major attacks across the country that have killed some 250 people. Most have targeted security forces, but some bombs have gone off in public places, apparently to undercut support for the army's assault on the border and expose the weakness of the government.
The Taliban have warned Pakistan that they would stage more attacks if the army does not end a new ground offensive in the South Waziristan tribal region, where the military has dispatched some 30,000 troops to flush out insurgents. South Waziristan is a major base for the Pakistani Taliban and other foreign militants.
North West Frontier Province Information Minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain blamed the militants 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."