The Pakistani interior minister appealed for calm yesterday in the country’s commercial capital Karachi, where shop owners surveyed gutted premises a day after a suicide bomber killed 43 people and triggered a city-center riot.
The bombing of a Shiite Muslim procession in Karachi underscored multiple security challenges facing the nuclear-armed US ally at a volatile time for embattled Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari.
The government launched a security crackdown in October against al-Qaeda-linked Taliban militants in their tribal strongholds in northwest Pakistan and retaliatory bombings since have killed hundreds of people across the country.
The attack in Pakistan’s biggest city may have just been part of a series of bombings designed to spread panic or an attempt to ignite sectarian bloodshed to pile pressure on security forces.
Pakistani security forces patrolled nearly empty streets.
“I appeal to the people of Karachi to stay peaceful. This is the economic hub of Pakistan,” Interior Minister Rehman Malik told reporters after attending the funeral of a paramilitary soldier who authorities said pounced on the suicide bomber.
“Anybody trying to destabilize Karachi is actually destabilizing Pakistan,” he said.
The provincial government of Sindh, of which Karachi is the capital, declared a public holiday, although banks and the stock market remained open.
Public transport was out of service and most shops and petrol pumps were shut after religious and political parties called for a day of mourning.
“Our office and the whole building is completely burnt. Everything has been destroyed,” said Saleem Khan, who runs a car rental business along what is normally a busy road.
Karachi police chief Waseem Ahmed said initial investigations showed the suicide bomber was aged between 18 and 20, and that he used between 8kg and 9kg of explosives. He said at least 500 shops and nine buildings had been set ablaze in the aftermath of the attack.
“It is clear that the terrorists are very well organized. They want to destabilize the country,” said Anjum Naqvi, who was part of the bombed procession.
A spokesman for the paramilitary rangers, Major Aurang Zeb, said his forces would take every possible step to maintain peace.
Provincial health secretary Hashim Raza Zaidi said the death toll had risen to 43, while 52 people were still in hospitals.
Some grieved before attending funerals, which can be risky — militants have bombed funerals for their victims, usually in the northwest. Others said their lives had been shattered.
“It’s a huge loss for the families of those killed. But what about our families? We are alive and have lost everything,” said Mohammad Shams, owner of a shop that makes plastic.
A teeming city of 18 million, Karachi has a long history of ethnic and factional violence, although it has been spared the brunt of Taliban attacks over the past couple of years.
Investors have factored in the violence. But sustained trouble could hurt financial markets in an economy in virtual recession. The stock market opened over one percent lower.
In Monday’s bloodshed, the assailant blew himself up at a march by thousands of people marking the climax of Ashura, the Shiite calendar’s biggest event, despite heavy security.
The attack was the third in as many days in Karachi.
“Karachi is the heart of the country and any incident here does have a negative impact on investor sentiment,” said Mohammed Sohail, chief executive of brokerage Topline Securities.