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Pakistan government under pressure after deadly attack

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan’s government came under renewed pressure on Saturday to bring stability to the country after a suicide bombing at a volleyball game -- one of the worst attacks in more than two years -- killed at least 89 people.

The blast suggested al Qaeda-linked Taliban insurgents were focusing more on bombing large crowds of civilians to inflict maximum casualties and spread terror, instead of attacking hard targets such as security forces.

The blast is certain to put Pakistan’s efforts to contain increasingly brazen militants under greater scrutiny and alarm ally Washington, which sees Pakistan as the key frontline state in the war against a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan.

Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani said nuclear-armed Pakistan, faces what he called terrorists seeking to create panic and fear.

“We have told the world that we have the ability and the resolve and we want to eliminate terrorism, but our capacity needs to be enhanced. And the whole world has agreed that Pakistan’s capacity should be enhanced,” he told reporters.

A day after the militant blew up his SUV at the volleyball field in the northwest village of Shah Hassankhel, rescuers and villagers were still searching for victims.

“We still believe there are more bodies buried in the rubble and the death toll may go up,” said Zahid Mohammad, a villager, who was among dozens of people helping rescuers.

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“People are digging through the rubble with their hands and spades and there is no heavy machinery to help us. It is just pathetic.”

Embattled President Asif Ali Zardari is under the spotlight on a number of fronts, both at home and from abroad. He is at odds with Pakistan’s all-powerful military which decides security policies, and his aides could face revived corruption charges.

“It (the militant violence) is increasing pressure on Zardari and provides more opportunities for his opponents to attack his government,” said political analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi.

“The government will need a kind of long-term perspective in a sense that they will have to strengthen internal security, which remained neglected in the past because they never realized that things could go so bad.”

Underscoring public discontent with rising violence, the southern city of Karachi, the country’s biggest and its commercial capital, was gripped by a strike on Friday.

It was called by religious and political leaders after a suicide bomber killed 43 people at a religious procession of thousands on Monday. The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility and threatened more attacks.

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Violence has surged since army troops launched a major offensive against al-Qaeda-linked militants South Waziristan, suggesting crackdowns will not be enough to stabilize Pakistan.

The New Year’s Day attack was one of the bloodiest bombings in Pakistan since the October 2007 attack that killed at least 139 people when former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, Zardari’s wife, returned home from self-imposed exile.

Militants have killed hundreds of people since mid-October.

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Authorities say the bomb attacks only stiffen their resolve to defeat the Taliban in their enclaves along the Afghan border, seen as a hub for the world’s most dangerous militant groups.

Analysts say that even if the government scores military defeats, it can only succeed in the long term if it wins the confidence of millions of Pakistanis suffering from poverty and lack of basis services such as electricity.

Militants have exploited hardships to recruit impressionable young men with promises of glorious holy war.

In a sign of growing security fears, the United Nations will withdraw some of its staff from Pakistan for safety reasons.

Washington, frustrated by what it says are inadequate efforts to wipe out the militants, has stepped up pilotless U.S. drone aircraft attacks on militants in Pakistan.

While they have killed high-profile al Qaeda and Taliban figures, the strikes have also generated anti-American anger, making it hard for Zardari to accommodate his U.S. supporters.

Additional reporting by Adil Khan in Bannu; Editing by Michael Georgy and Jeremy Laurence