PESHAWAR, Pakistan — Pakistan vowed to launch a new offensive against militant strongholds along the Afghan border after a suicide bomber blew up a car near a crowded outdoor market on Friday, killing 49 people in the bloodiest attack to hit the country in six months.
The United States has been pushing Pakistan to take strong action against insurgents who are using its soil as a base for attacks in neighboring Afghanistan. A push into the rugged mountains of South Waziristan could be risky for the army, which was beaten back on three previous offensives into the Taliban heartland there and forced to sign peace deals.
But the army may have been emboldened by a reasonably successful military campaign in the Swat Valley and adjoining Buner district and by the killing in a U.S. missile strike of Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud. The military also appears committed to destroying Mehsud's group, as opposed to its often ambivalent position toward other insurgents in the past.
Islamic militants have been carrying out nearly weekly attacks in Pakistan, but the sheer scale of Friday's bombing – which killed nine children – pushed the government to declare it would take the fight to South Waziristan, part of the lawless tribal belt where al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden may be hiding.
Interior Minister Rehman Malik said the militants had left the government "no other option" but to hit back. "We will have to proceed," he told a local television station. "All roads are leading to South Waziristan."
The massive blast tore through a busy road in the heart of Peshawar, a city of more than 3 million people about 150 miles northeast of South Waziristan along the Afghan border. The force of the bomb flipped a bus on its side, ripped apart a motorbike and flung charred debris down the street.
Passers-by pulled out the wounded and the dead, covering the bodies of victims whose clothes were burned. One man staggered down the road, his face covered with blood.
Another man dashed from the scene carrying an 8-year-old girl dressed in a bright orange outfit in his arms. The child, Amna Bibi, was heading to a wedding when she was caught by the blast. Her family, sobbing at the main Peshawar hospital in their wedding finery, said later that she had died. Amna's mother, Zareen, kissed her daughter's bandaged face and wept.
"I understood for the first time in my life what doomsday would look like," said Noor Alam, who suffered wounds to his legs and face.
The hospital was overwhelmed by the wounded, with many forced to share beds. Some of the dead were laid out on nearby gurneys, covered with sheets.
"I pray to Allah, please destroy all these people who are killing the innocents," said Sher Akbar from his hospital bed.
Zafar Iqbal, a doctor at the hospital, said 49 people were killed and more than 100 were wounded.
Peshawar Police Chief Liaqat Ali Khan said the attacker drove a car packed with a massive amount of explosives and artillery rounds. The blast was heard for miles around.
There was no claim of responsibility for the bombing and its target was not immediately apparent. Militants typically attack government, military or Western targets, but previous blasts have hit public places as well.
The bombing, along with an attack Monday at a U.N. aid agency in Islamabad that killed five, highlighted the insurgents' ability to hit major cities despite previous army offensives and Mehsud's death in August.
In April, the military launched a three-month offensive in the Swat Valley and largely cleared the region of the thousands of Taliban reportedly based there. That operation followed an August 2008 offensive in the semiautonomous Bajur tribal area along the Afghan border that ended six months later with the army declaring success. The militants have fought back with scores of suicide attacks.
For months, officials have been hinting at a new operation in South Waziristan, blockading roads there and carrying out targeted airstrikes as thousands of civilians fled the area.
But until Malik's comments Friday, no Pakistani official had publicly declared the military was preparing a full offensive.
Malik did not give a timeline for an offensive that is likely to be far fiercer than the Swat and Bajur battles.
The army has launched three operations in South Waziristan since 2001 but each time has been forced to abandon the push and sign peace deals with the militants.
The region is considered the epicenter of militant resistance in the country, and new Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud, who pledged to repel any attack, is reported to have 10,000 guerrilla fighters on his side. An Associated Press reporter visiting the area this week saw Taliban taking up key vantage points, and residents said fighters were digging trenches along routes the military was expected to traverse.
The area is filled with independent, heavily armed Pashtun tribes hostile to outsiders – including the Pakistani army – and any offensive that led to high civilian casualties could spark a quick public backlash and bolster the Taliban.
Associated Press writers Munir Ahmad and Asif Shahzad contributed to this report from Islamabad.