A car bomb tore through a market popular with women in northwestern Pakistan on Wednesday, killing 86 people hours after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton arrived in the country to show 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 blast hit a market selling bangles, dresses and toys in an old part of town crisscrossed with narrow alleys. It set scores of shops on fire, collapsed buildings, including a mosque, and sent a cloud of gray smoke over the city. TV footage showed wounded people sitting amid the debris as people grabbed at the wreckage, trying to pull out survivors before carrying them to a hospital.
One two-story building collapsed as firefighters doused it with water.
Clinton, on her first visit to Pakistan as secretary of state, was three hours' 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 that this fight is not Pakistan's alone," she said in remarks carried live on Pakistani news channels. "This is our struggle as well."
Sahib Gul, a doctor at a nearby hospital, said 86 people were killed and more than 200 injured. Many of the victims were women and children.
No group claimed responsibility for the bombing, but that is not unusual, especially when the victims are Pakistani civilians.
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 sow fear 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."