Blast eclipses Clinton's Pakistan visit
Attack kills at least 100, draws focus away from secretary's mission
Thursday, October 29, 2009
ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN -- The deadliest bombing in Pakistan in two years quickly overshadowed Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's first official visit here Wednesday, drawing attention away from her goal of promoting a broad U.S.-Pakistan relationship based on more than the shared fight against terrorism.
In a dinner toast to Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, Clinton tried to address the military's battle against Taliban insurgents as well as the U.S. development assistance she came here to highlight. "Those who your brave soldiers are fighting against as we meet here tonight are destroyers, not builders," she told guests at a gathering Zardari hosted in her honor at the presidential palace.
Just a few hours earlier, at least 100 people were killed and 200 were injured when a powerful car bomb tore through a crowded market in the northwestern city of Peshawar. Hospital officials said two-thirds of the dead were women and children.
News of the attack reached the capital just after 2 p.m., as Clinton was discussing a $125 million energy aid package with Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi. At a news conference immediately afterward, Clinton said: "I want you to know this fight is not Pakistan's alone. . . . 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."
The energy assistance program is aimed at rebuilding Pakistan's electricity-production capacity, beginning with repairs and upgrades to local power stations. Clinton's three-day visit is geared toward public appearances, with the goal of quelling rising anti-Americanism among the public and assuring the Pakistani political opposition and military that the Obama administration seeks a full partnership with the country.
Zardari's administration has been placed on the defensive in recent weeks by accusations from domestic critics that his government is an American puppet. The criticism has been fueled by conditions that Congress placed on a multibillion-dollar aid package, which anti-Zardari forces in Pakistan say are designed to undermine the nation's sovereignty.
In between official meetings and the dinner Wednesday, Clinton held a combative interview with leading Pakistani reporters. She insisted that the Obama administration sees the U.S.-Pakistan relationship as one of equals, and she batted aside questions about alleged secret U.S. military and security contractor operations, which the U.S. Embassy here has repeatedly denied.
In a live television broadcast, she pushed the button on a computer that randomly chose more than 700 lottery winners. The lottery, part of a welfare program aimed at poor women and named after assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto -- Zardari's wife -- is slated to receive $85 million this year as part of the $7.5 billion U.S. aid package.
The Peshawar explosion was the latest in a wave of suicide bombings, assassinations and attacks staged in response to a major Pakistani military offensive against insurgent sanctuaries in the tribal area of South Waziristan, near the Afghanistan border.
Having broadcast images of Clinton's arrival earlier in the day, Pakistani news coverage quickly shifted to pictures of the carnage, highlighting the difficulty of her mission.
The blast occurred in the Mina Bazaar, a busy market in Peshawar's larger Qissa Khawani Bazaar. Relief workers and government officials said the explosion badly damaged six four-story buildings surrounding the bazaar, a historic site full of dark stalls and dusty treasures. One of the buildings collapsed, as did a nearby mosque, officials said.
There was no immediate assertion of responsibility for the bombing. But the provincial government spokesman, Iftikhar Hussain, told reporters that it was probably in reaction to the ongoing South Waziristan operation.
"The blast was so massive that it rocked the whole area," said Karim Khan, 40, a trader in the market. "When I came out of the shop, the bazaar was covered in dust and smoke. I rushed to the site and saw many people crying and screaming. Many shops in the market were engulfed by fire."
Shafqat Malik, a senior Pakistani police official, said more than 250 pounds of explosives had been planted in a parked car outside the market.
Khan reported from Peshawar.