A suicide car bomb tore through a Pakistan market, killing up to 14 people and trapping others under the debris on Friday as families shopped for a major religious festival, police said.
The explosion flung body parts across the bazaar and gutted shops in Ustarzai, a mountain town in the northwest which lies between the garrison city of Kohat and Hangu, another Shiite town with a history of sectarian unrest.
There was no immediate claim for the latest attack in northwest Pakistan, which is rife with sectarian violence and Islamist militants, branded by the United States as an existential threat to the nuclear-armed country.
The area was packed with shoppers buying food and delicacies for the weekend and the Muslim Eid al-Fitr holiday, which Pakistanis expect to start on Monday with the sighting of the new moon after the fasting month of Ramadan.
Bodies lay on the road and casualties were trapped under the debris from shops that caved in after the blast when the bomber rammed a jeep packed with 150 kilos (330 pounds) of exposives into another vehicle.
Sohail Ahmad, a shopkeeper in the market whose left leg was broken in the attack, told AFP that he blacked out.
“I was standing in front of my shop when all of a sudden, a car blew up outside a restaurant. I went unconcious. I don’t remember anything else. When I came round, I was in hospital,” Ahmad said from his hospital bed.
Police spokesman Fazal Naeem in nearby Kohat said: “We have recovered 14 dead bodies. Many people were wounded. The bomber was sitting in a car.”
But other police officials at the scene put the death toll lower.
“Seven to 10 people are confirmed dead in the jeep suicide blast, but the death toll may rise because so many people are wounded. Body parts are scattered all over the place,” said Dilawar Bangash, Kohat police chief.
“Some of the bodies have been sent to hospital and some are lying on the road,” Bangash told AFP by telephone from the scene of the blast.
A local Ustazai police official involved in the relief effort confirmed 10 dead and 36 wounded.
“This is a Shiite-dominated area and we cannot rule out the possibility that this was a sectarian-motivated attack,” said Ali Hasan.
Witnesses at the district hospital in Kohat said most of the casualties were Shiites. Television footage showed victims being brought in covered in blood with their clothes torn apart.
“Dozens of shops were destroyed. Their roofs caved in and many people were trapped under the debris,” said Hasan.
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani condemned the “cowardly act of terrorism” and expressed grief over the loss of life, his office said in a statement.
Gilani “expressed the government’s determination to stamp out the menace of terrorism and militancy from the country,” it said.
In April, Pakistan launched a military offensive against the Taliban in the northwestern districts of Buner, Lower Dir and Swat after militants advanced to within 100 kilometres (60 miles) of the capital Islamabad.
The military says it has cleared the area and in the last week claimed three major arrests of wanted commanders in Swat although skirmishes have continued, raising the prospect that many militants are hiding in the mountains.
Government troops have also launched military operations against a local Taliban-linked warlord in the semi-autonomous Khyber tribal region, which lies on the main supply route for Western troops in neighbouring Afghanistan.
The United States says Islamist fighters are hiding in the Pakistani mountains near the Afghan border, plotting attacks on Western targets and crossing the porous frontier to attack foreign troops in Afghanistan.
Taliban and Al-Qaeda rebels fled Afghanistan after the 2001 US-led invasion, carving out boltholes and training camps in Pakistan’s remote mountains.