Islamabad – A powerful bomb ripped through a busy corner of the federal capital’s main vegetable market on Wednesday morning, killing at least 24 people and injuring around 116 others.
It was the second deadly attack in just over a month in Islamabad, where security had been beefed up and top police officials changed in the days since March 3, when militants had killed 12 people in a gun-and-suicide assault on the capital’s district courts.
But the law-enforcement authorities appeared equally helpless on Monday as a remote-controlled bomb, planted inside a crate of guavas according to acting Islamabad Inspector General (IG) Khalid Khattak, went off at the Sabzi Mandi in Sector I-11 around 8am.
Much like the March 3 attack, Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) denied involvement and condemned the incident.
Some politicians, including the health and information ministers, showed up at the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences (PIMS), where the injured were being treated, to show solidarity with the blast victims.
Others, mostly opposition party representatives, criticized the government for insufficient security measures while police officers maintained it was too early in the investigations to indicate the attack’s perpetrators or the motive behind the bomb blast.
“(However) it was not a routine crime,” said Assistant Inspector General of Islamabad Police Sultan Azam Temuri. “We are considering it an act of terrorism.”
Bomb disposal Squad (BDS) personnel said five kilogrammes of explosives were used in the bomb that exploded on the market’s northern edge, which borders an up-scale supermarket’s compound.
There, in a parking lot, a consignment of guavas delivered from Punjab was being auctioned for wholesale dealers and local vendors at the time of the blast, eyewitnesses said.
The market, a congested hub for the sale, purchase and distribution of fruits and vegetables for the twin cities and surrounding areas, is usually brimming with hundreds of vendors and labourers in the mornings.
These unskilled workers were the people worst hit by the bomb blast. Some of the dead — day labourers who lived at a katchi abadi located across from the market — did not even have identification on them, according to doctors at PIMS, where some of the bodies were shifted.
“Poor workers were targeted in this attack,” said Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar, when he visited the blast site on Monday evening.
Eyewitness Muhammad Arsalan, a commission agent at the market, said he was some 30 feet away from the blast site when the bomb exploded.
“It threw me back, the shockwave from the explosion,” Arsalan said, his shirt ripped from the impact.
As people near the blast site ran back in fear and panic, others like Ikramuddin, who manages the Sitara trading company’s fruit deliveries at the market, ran towards the sound of the blast.
“It was a mess. There were mangled bodies, blood, everywhere,” Ikramuddin, who said there is never enough security around the bustling market, said. “We just started picking up the bodies.”
Arsalan too said he carried eight bodies himself to private cars to get them to a hospital, before the rescue workers arrived on the scene.
Except an initial hesitation over jurisdiction, because the market is located near the I J Principal Road which divides Islamabad from Rawalpindi, the rescue services from the twin cities responded efficiently to the incident.
The dead and the injured were mostly shifted to the PIMS and Rawalpindi’s Holy Family Hospital, where doctors said most of the injured had shrapnel wounds on the lower limbs and amputations.
Eighteen were brought dead to PIMS, two to the Holy Family. But the death toll increased to 24 by evening, police said.
Two hours after the blast, as mosque loudspeakers in the area blared calls for blood donation for the injured traders demanded they be provided more security.
“We will close the market and not reopen it until a security wall, with separate entry and exit points, is built around the market,” said Babu Aleem, the President of the Fruit Market Union. “Without such an arrangement, neither the police nor we can prevent another bomb blast from happening here again.”
AIG Temuri said it was impossible to provide 100 per cent security to the market because every container cannot be comprehensively checked.
“We have regular police presence at the mandi and there is a police station nearby.”
The Sabzi Mandi police station registered a case against unidentified persons on murder, attempted murder and terrorism charges. Police said the blast created a 3 by 2.5 feet crater, which was half a foot deep.
“The explosives were powerful enough to have ripped through the cemented floor,” one BDS officer, who swept the area, said.
Market vendors said someone might have planted the bomb at the market after the boxes were unloaded from seven to eight trucks, which police said had arrived from Arifwala in the Pakpattan district.
But police officials, at the blast site, said they suspected the bomb was transported inside the crate from outside the city. Rawalpindi regional police officer Akhtar Umer Lalayka said Islamabad Police was taking the lead on the investigations but the points of origin of the guava consignment in Punjab will also be checked.
Two of the vendors involved in the auction, who were injured and being treated at the hospital, will be interrogated, police said.
Khattak, who has temporary charge for Islamabad’s police chief after Minister Nisar removed the previous IG in March in a bid to improve security in the city, said police had not received a “specific threat” for the vegetable market.
Some people at the market pointed fingers at the katchi abadi, mostly inhabited by Pakistani Pashtuns, suggesting that Afghans in the locality there should be registered.
Nisar, who earlier in 2013 had claimed Islamabad’s slums were safe havens for terrorists, said the Islamabad police were in the process of registering residents of the slum dwellings. “We cannot remove them by force,” he said.
The minister said technology and transparent monitoring of goods transport are needed to prevent such incidents in the future.
“We cannot control this situation without technology,” Nisar said. “On the one hand, (we need to tackle threats) through better intelligence and on the other hand, through a transparent system to monitor the transportation of goods. Technology will be needed to do that.”
Nisar said the previous government had spent Rs1 billion on buying four scanners for explosives but two of them were dysfunctional and two never arrived.
The minister also chaired a meeting of senior police and Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT) administration officials at the interior ministry on Monday evening. He directed the ICT to take over control of the vegetable market from the Capital Development Authority and to work out a security plan in consultation with traders.
He also directed compensation to be paid to the injured and the relatives of the deceased within the next three days. It was decided in the meeting that police and Rangers will start joint patrolling of the capital from this month.