PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) - A suicide bomber attacked Pakistani police guarding a protest rally against power cuts in the city of Peshawar on Monday killing 23 people, police and government officials said.
Islamist militants fighting the government of nuclear-armed Pakistan have launched a string of bomb attacks in Peshawar, which is the gateway to Afghanistan, killing hundreds of people over the past year.
The latest blast went off in an area of the old city known as the Storytellers’ Bazaar as a protest against power cuts organized by a religious party was breaking up, officials said.
“A man blew himself up when policemen were sitting in their vehicles after the rally,” said provincial Information Minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain.
Several officials of the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) party, which organized the protest, were among the dead, said members of the party which has a record of sympathizing with Islamists.
Police officer Imran Kishwar said 23 people had been killed and 29 wounded.
Ambulances with red lights flashing raced through the streets as dusk settled on the city.
“We were returning to our police station when the blast went off,” a slightly wounded policeman, Riaz Khan, told Reuters. “I saw bodies and limbs scattered all about when I turned around.”
It was the second blast in the city on Monday.
Earlier, a six-year-old school boy was killed and five boys and two other people were wounded when explosives went off outside their school in the city, doctors said.
Security forces have made significant gains against the militants in offensives over the past year, clearing the fighters from strongholds in the Swat valley and in the regions of South Waziristan and Bajaur on the Afghan border.
But the militants have demonstrated time and again they have the capacity to strike back with gun and bomb attacks.
City police chief Liaqat Ali told reporters his men had found the bomber’s head. Bombers often strap explosives to their bodies and their heads are cut off by the blast.
The militants were trying to destabilize cities across the country after largely lying low for several months, he said.
“Now they’ve reorganized, regrouped, and they will try to hurt us, hit us, but nonetheless, we’re ready,” Ali said.
Separately, two oil tankers carrying fuel to Western forces in Afghanistan were destroyed in a bomb blast in the Khyber region, security officials said.
Supplies for Western forces in Afghanistan are shipped into the Pakistani city of Karachi and trucked into landlocked Afghanistan through the Khyber Pass. Militants have been attacking the supply convoys but have failed to block them.
The government forces have in recent weeks stepped attacks in Khyber and the neighboring Orakzai and Kurram regions where officials say militants have taken refuge from earlier sweeps.
The violence came as President Asif Ali Zardari signed into law constitutional amendments stripping him of his main powers and handing them to Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani.
The reforms, earlier passed unanimously by both houses of parliament, should go some way to disarm Zardari’s many critics and contribute to political stability.
Army successes against the militants and hopes for political stability have encouraged investors in Pakistani stocks.
The main index is at levels not seen since 2008, supported by foreign buying. Net foreign inflows were $113 million in March, the second highest monthly inflow ever.
Stock markets were closed for the day when the suicide bomber struck in Peshawar.
Additional reporting by Zeeshan Haider and Kamran Haider; Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani