By SEBASTIAN ABBOT
Associated Press Writer
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) - A suicide car bomber attacked a crowded market in northwestern Pakistan on Tuesday, killing 24 people and illustrating militants' growing willingness to target civilians in their war against the government.
Taliban insurgents apparently hope the attacks will weaken the army's resolve to wage an offensive against the the group's stronghold along the Afghan border. But the indiscriminate killing could backfire by further turning the public against Islamist extremists, as happened in Iraq.
The bombing was the fourth in about a month to target a market in or around Peshawar, the main city in the northwest. The attacks have produced some of the largest death tolls in the past few years, killing a total of more than 200 people.
The van that exploded outside the market in Charsadda city was packed with some 90 pounds (40 kilograms) of explosives, said Liaqat Ali Khan, the senior police chief in the surrounding North West Frontier Province.
The blast destroyed several stores and caused panic among the vendors and shoppers who were present at the market. Three women and three children were among the 24 killed, said Khan. Another 64 people were wounded.
"It was deafening and there were clouds of dust all around. I could not see anything around me," said Rashid Kaka, who was returning to his shop from the local mosque when the bomb exploded. "Later, I saw many bodies lying scattered."
Three of the recent market attacks in the northwest, including one that killed at least 112 people in Peshawar, have occurred since mid-October, when the army launched an offensive in the northwestern tribal region of South Waziristan.
Prior to the army operation, most militant attacks in Pakistan had targeted security forces or government officials.
No one claimed responsibility for Tuesday's attack and the others targeting Pakistani civilians, but the government and independent security analysts say there is no doubt the Taliban are to blame.
The militants have also attacked Western targets as well army and police officers since the offensive began and do not shy away from claiming responsibility for types of those attacks in calls to local and international media.
Mian Iftikhar Hussain, information minister for North West Frontier Province, said Tuesday's bombing was evidence the government crackdown was putting pressure on the militants.
"They are not able to target freely, and that's why they are targeting innocent people," said Hussain. "But we and the people of Pakistan are determined to continue this jihad against terrorists undeterred."
Although the militants may hope the recent bombings will weaken the army's resolve in South Waziristan, the attacks could stir up greater public anger toward the Taliban because of the growing civilian death toll. That ire could in turn generate greater support for the government's campaign against the militants.
A high civilian death toll was one of the primary factors that turned Sunni tribal leaders in Iraq against al-Qaida militants in 2006. The U.S. took advantage of the anger by paying the tribesman to fight against al-Qaida, and their support was one of the key reasons violence declined dramatically in the country.
But there is also the danger Pakistanis could turn their anger toward their own government, which is already unpopular for failing to provide adequate security - also a common complaint in Iraq.
The issue has been complicated even further by some right-wing and Islamist Pakistanis and media commentators who have alleged that archenemy India or even the U.S. may be behind the attacks.
Arshad Abdullah, the senior legal official in North West Frontier Province, said Tuesday that it was not possible to provide "100 percent foolproof security" against attacks.
"You see, we are in the middle of the war," said Abdullah.
The U.S. has encouraged the government to persevere in South Waziristan because Pakistan's tribal belt is home to many Taliban and al-Qaida militants involved in attacks on Western troops across the border in Afghanistan.
Pakistan's army has pitted some 30,000 troops against up to 8,000 militants, including many Uzbeks and other foreign insurgents who have long taken refuge in the lawless tribal areas.
The soldiers have been battling militants in three key Taliban bases in South Waziristan over the past few days.
The latest fighting has killed nine militants, an army statement said Tuesday.
The information is nearly impossible to verify independently since Pakistan has blocked access to the battle zone.
Associated Press writers Riaz Khan in Peshawar and Ashraf Khan in Islamabad contributed to this report.