A powerful bomb ripped through the busy fruit and vegetable market of the federal capital Wednesday morning, killing at least 23 people and injuring around 110 others. It was the second deadly attack in just over a month in Islamabad, where security had been beefed up and top police officials changed following the March 3 gun-and-suicide assault on the district courts complex which left 12 dead.
Law-enforcers appeared equally helpless on Wednesday as a remote-controlled bomb, planted inside a crate of guavas according to acting IGP Khalid Khattak, went off at Sabzi Mandi in Sector I-11 around 8am.
Some politicians, including the health and information ministers, showed up at the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences (PIMS), where the injured were being treated, to show solidarity with the blast victims. Others, mostly from opposition parties, criticised the government for ‘insufficient security measures’ while police officers maintained it was too early to conclude who carried out the attack and why.
“[However] it was not a routine crime,” said Assistant Inspector General of Islamabad Police Sultan Azam Temuri. “We are considering it an act of terrorism.”
Bomb Disposal Squad officials said five kilogrammes of explosives were used in the device that exploded on the market’s northern edge, which borders an upscale supermarket’s compound. There, in a parking lot, a consignment of guavas delivered from Punjab was being auctioned for wholesale dealers and local vendors at the time of the blast, eyewitnesses said.
The market is usually brimming with hundreds of vendors and labourers in the mornings. And these unskilled workers were the people worst hit by the bombing. Some of the dead – day labourers who lived in a nearby slum – did not even have identification on them, according to doctors at PIMS, where some of the bodies were shifted.
“Poor workers were targeted in this attack,” said Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar, when he visited the bombsite Wednesday evening.
Eyewitness Muhammad Arsalan, a commission agent at the market, said he was some 30 feet away from the site when the bomb exploded. “The shockwave threw me back,” Arsalan said, his shirt ripped from the impact.
As people near the site ran helter-skelter, others like Ikramuddin, who manages a trading company’s fruit deliveries at the market, ran towards the sound of the blast.
“It was a mess. There were mangled bodies, blood, everywhere,” Ikramuddin said. “We just started picking up the bodies.” Arsalan, too, said he carried eight bodies himself to private cars to get them to hospital, before the rescuers arrived.
The dead and the injured were mostly shifted to PIMS and Holy Family Hospital, where doctors said most of the injured had shrapnel wounds on the lower limbs and amputations. Eighteen were brought dead to PIMS, two to Holy Family. But the death toll increased to 23 by evening, police said.
Two hours after the blast, as mosque loudspeakers in the area blared calls for blood donation for the injured, traders demanded they be provided more security.
“We will close the market and not reopen it until a security wall, with separate entry and exit points, is built around the market,” said Babu Aleem, the president of the Fruit Market Union. “Without such an arrangement, neither the police nor we can prevent another bomb blast from happening here again.”
AIG Temuri said it was impossible to provide 100 per cent security to the market because every container cannot be comprehensively checked. “We have regular police presence at the Mandi and there is a police station nearby.”
The Sabzi Mandi police station registered a case against unidentified persons on murder, attempted murder and terrorism charges.
The police said the blast created a 3 by 2.5 feet crater, which was half a foot deep. “The explosives were powerful enough to have ripped through the cemented floor,” one BDS officer, who swept the area, said.
Market vendors said someone might have planted the bomb at the market after the boxes were unloaded from seven to eight trucks, which police said had arrived from Arifwala in Pakpattan district.
But police officials, at the blast site, said they suspected the bomb was transported inside the crate from outside the city. Rawalpindi Regional Police Officer Akhtar Umer Lalayka said the Islamabad police was taking the lead on the investigations but the points of origin of the guava consignment in Punjab will also be checked.
Two of the vendors involved in the auction, who were injured and being treated at the hospital, will be interrogated, the police said.
Interior Minister Nisar said technology and transparent monitoring of goods transport are needed to prevent such incidents in the future. “We cannot control this situation without technology,” he said. “On the one hand, (we need to tackle threats) through better intelligence and on the other hand, through a transparent system to monitor the transportation of goods. Technology will be needed to do that.”
Nisar said the previous government had spent Rs1 billion on buying four scanners for explosives but two of them were dysfunctional and two never arrived.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 10th, 2014.