ISLAMABAD // The death toll from a massive suicide car bomb attack in north-western Pakistan rose to 91 as distraught villagers and rescue workers rummaged through the rubble to search for more bodies, and dozens of funerals marked the grim beginning of the new year for a country already ravaged by terrorist attacks. The bombing is being described as one of the deadliest attacks in recent months and seen as a brazen act of retaliation by Taliban militants against the formation of armed militias that challenge their authority and influence, according to analysts and politicians here.
A suicide bomber drove an explosives-laden double-cabin pickup lorry on to a playing field in Shah Hasan Khel village, where hundreds of people had gathered to watch a volleyball match on Friday. The massive blast not only tore through the crowd of onlookers but also destroyed dozens of houses surrounding the playing field. More than a 100 people were wounded. Charred body parts littered the playing field after the attack and several bodies were trapped under the rubble throughout the night.
Police officials estimated that at least 250 kilograms of high intensity explosives were used in the attack. A sporting event was an unusual and unlikely target of the attack. A meeting of village elders and members of a "peace committee" - as anti-Taliban militias are known here - was underway in a nearby mosque and was possibly the actual target of the bombing, locals and police officials speculated.
Members and leaders of peace committees have repeatedly been targeted in the past. The village, near the town of Lakki Marwat, is located on the edge of South Waziristan, the rugged semi-autonomous tribal region where Pakistan military launched an offensive in October. A series of reprisal attacks by Taliban militants have targeted the capital, Islamabad, and other major cities across the country.
Analysts said the bombing underscores the difficulties and challenges faced by Pakistani authorities as they confront a determined and tenacious enemy in the form of Taliban militants. "The attack is terrible," said Omar R Quraishi, a political analyst based in Karachi. "It shows the price that is being extracted by the militants from those who have the courage to stand up to the Taliban. "The government and the military, in particular, need to review their strategy of encouraging militias against the Taliban", Mr Qureshi said. "It is sensible but has to be backed up by the military's own logistical and other assistance."
The restive North-West Frontier Province has borne the brunt of the militancy as a string of suicide attacks have rattled the population and wreaked havoc. At least 790 civilians in the region lost their lives in 2009 as a result of terrorist attacks, Dawn, the country's leading daily newspaper reported. "Shah Hasankhel was a stronghold of Taliban till just a few months ago," Munawar Khan, a member of the provincial assembly for the area, said in a telephone interview.
"But by June, July last year, the military with the help of villagers launched an offensive against Taliban and managed to evict them. "Although the village was cleared of Taliban presence, the Taliban hid in neighbouring areas and some fled to North Waziristan," Mr Khan said, referring to the semiautonomous tribal region that straddles the border with Afghanistan and is a stronghold of a faction of Taliban headed by Sirajjudin Haqqani, who is accused by US officials of launching attacks against allied forces inside Afghanistan.
Despite managing to push the militants out of the village, locals found little reprieve from sporadic reprisals. "They [militants] continued to launch attacks in the district and targeted a former member of the parliament in an unsuccessful suicide attack last month. "A few weeks later, Taliban killed a member of the peace committee," Mr Khan said. He expressed disappointment that the Pakistani military left the villagers on their own after the military operation in the village was over last year.
"The military just became a spectator after the offensive last year as villagers and Taliban have fought with one another," Mr Khan said. "The villagers have suffered a lot of difficulties." Shah Hasankhel is a poor village comprising of clusters of mud houses. Inevitably, it lacked the infrastructure to cope with a terrorist attack. "The wounded were immediately taken to the hospital in Lakki Marwat. It had just one emergency room and did not have enough medicine," Mr Khan said.
By yesterday, most of the wounded were ferried to hospitals in the neighbouring city of Bannu and the provincial capital, Peshawar. Residents of the carnage-hit village complained of a lack of assistance by the government. Mr Khan said there was a need to provide more help and funds to villagers who were willing to stand up to the Taliban."The militants are a handful compared with those who want peace," he said.