ISLAMABAD (AFP) – Two suicide car bombings, one of them targeting Chinese workers, killed at least 36 people in Pakistan on Thursday, fuelling a sense of crisis after a government raid on an Islamabad mosque.
Authorities said they suspected the blasts were part of a wave of attacks, sparked by the siege and storming of the pro-Taliban Red Mosque earlier this month, that has left more than 180 people dead.
In the southwestern industrial town of Hub, a suicide car bomber blew himself up as a convoy of Chinese citizens and local security forces passed, killing at least 30 Pakistanis but no Chinese nationals, officials said.
Hours earlier, six people were killed when another attacker ploughed his explosives-laden vehicle into the gates of a police college in the northwestern town of Hangu as recruits carried out a morning drill.
Both attacks left a trail of body parts, blood stains and mangled vehicles.
“Indirectly these attacks are a backlash reaction against the Red Mosque,” Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao told AFP.
President Pervez Musharraf, whose order for the mosque raid sparked calls from Al-Qaeda for a holy war, said Wednesday that Pakistan was in “direct confrontation” with Islamic militants and pledged to attack their hideouts.
Musharraf, a key ally in the US “war on terror”, faces intense pressure from Washington to launch fresh assaults against Islamic extremists, especially on an Al-Qaeda “safe haven” in the tribal belt bordering Afghanistan.
The attack in Hub, in the gas-rich province of Baluchistan, targeted a convoy of seven Chinese mine workers escorted by police and paramilitary troops, police said.
The force of the blast knocked over lorries and demolished nearby shops.
“Suddenly I heard a powerful blast and smoke engulfed the convoy. I heard people screaming for help and body parts littered the area,” said witness Mannan Durrani.
The blast killed 30 people including eight police officers, while the Chinese were all “safe”, said Major General Saleem Nawaz, inspector general of the paramilitary Frontier Corps.
Baluchistan police chief Tariq Khosa blamed the attack on extremists behind the spate of attacks since troops surrounded the Red Mosque on July 3. More than 100 died in the week-long siege and subsequent assault.
“Overwhelmingly it appears to be a backlash from Islamic extremists. The method of attack appears to be the same,” Khosa told AFP.
Baluchistan has also been wracked by a nearly three-year insurgency by tribal rebels seeking greater autonomy and a greater share of the province’s natural resources, although they have never used suicide bombs.
Key ally China asked Pakistan to step up security for its citizens two weeks ago, after suspected Islamic militants shot dead three Chinese men in the northwestern city of Peshawar in revenge for the mosque siege.
The alliance with Beijing “is a vital relation for Pakistan but it appears that somebody wants to damage it,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam told AFP.
Thursday’s suicide bombing in the northwest meanwhile was the latest in a series targeting security installations in North West Frontier Province and Pakistan’s troubled tribal areas on the Afghan border.
The attacker in a Suzuki car was trying to target hundreds of recruits marching on the parade ground at a police recruitment centre but could not get through the gates, area police chief Zulfiqar Cheema said.
“It appears to be part of the backlash against the raid in Islamabad,” Cheema said. Five civilians and one policeman died.
In other attacks, militants blew up 16 shops in the Bajaur tribal district, while rebels destroyed two empty checkposts in the North Waziristan tribal zone.
Security was tightened in Islamabad where a suicide attack killed 17 people Tuesday at a rally to support the country’s ousted top judge, who has become an icon of opposition to military ruler Musharraf.
A court was due to rule Friday on an appeal by Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry against his March 9 suspension by Musharraf.