By Muhammad Hashim
KOHAT, Pakistan (Reuters) – A suicide car-bomber killed 33 people in northwest Pakistan on Friday in an explosion on a road that brought down shops where people were stocking up before a holiday.
Militants have struck with bombs numerous times since intensifying their war against the government in 2007, but the Islamists have suffered setbacks this year, raising government hope that the security forces might be getting the upper hand.
The bomb went off on a main road near the city of Kohat, 150 km (100 miles) southwest of Islamabad, and brought down some roadside shops, police and witnesses said.
“A restaurant and many shops have collapsed. It’s chaos here. There’s huge devastation,” said Ibn-e-Ali, a former judge and resident of the area.
“My house is one kilometer away, but the blast was so huge it felt as if it was next door.”
A police spokesman said 33 people had been killed and about 80 wounded. The bomb was believed to have contained about 150 kg (330 lb) of explosives, police said.
Kohat is a garrison town, close to the lawless ethnic Pashtun tribal belt on the Afghan border, a major sanctuary for militants battling in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The attack could have been revenge for security force attacks on militants, a police officer told the state-run APP news agency.
“The blast may be a reaction to operations against militants in the surrounding areas of Orakzai,” officer Dilawar Bangash told the news agency, referring to an area where the army has been fighting Pakistani Taliban militants.
Residents spent hours sifting through the wreckage of shops destroyed in the blast, which occurred a couple of days before the Eid al-Fitr, end-of-Ramadan holiday.
Among the dead were workers waiting to catch buses home for the holiday, said another resident, whose brother was killed in the blast.
The area where the attack took place is mostly inhabited by minority Shi’ite Muslims and there has been sectarian violence in the region in the past.
Taliban militants are from the majority Sunni community and attack on Shi’ites are part of their strategy to fight the government.
Pakistani forces have made gains against the militants in an offensive in the Swat valley, northwest of Islamabad, months after Taliban advances and bomb attacks raised fears for nuclear-armed Pakistan’s future and contributed to a slide in investor confidence.
Militant attacks have tapered off in recent weeks after the death of the Pakistani Taliban chief in a missile fired by a U.S. drone aircraft on August 5. But security officials say fighters loyal to al Qaeda and the Taliban are still a serious threat.