ISLAMABAD (AP) — A bomb ripped through a fruit and vegetable market on the outskirts of Islamabad on Wednesday, killing 22 people and wounding dozens more in a new attack in the Pakistani capital, which until recently had remained relatively removed from shootings and bombings that plague other parts of the country.
Confusion over who carried out the morning blast underlined one of Pakistan's central woes — the sheer number of armed groups waging violence for multiple motives.
The Pakistani Taliban, which has led a campaign of bombings and shootings for years aimed at toppling the government, quickly denied responsibility, saying in a statement that it is adhering to a ceasefire for negotiations. Offshoots of the group have carried out at least one attack during the cease-fire.
A separatist group of ethnic Baluch claimed responsibility for Wednesday's attack. Baluch separatists have been fighting a bloody insurgency for years in their heartland in the southwest of the country. They have rarely struck as far away as the capital, and if they were to blame, it could represent a worrying expansion of their reach.
But the Interior Ministry called the Baluch claim "ludicrous" and said initial investigations did not suggest the group was involved. In a statement, it said the incident "pointed in another direction," but did not elaborate.
The bomb, hidden in a carton of fruit, went off as morning shoppers were buying supplies at the outdoor market. Witnesses described dismembered victims as the blast sent boxes of produce flying, leaving the bloodstained ground littered with fruits and vegetables, shoes, clothes and Muslim prayer caps.
"People were dying. People were crying. People were running," one fruit trader, Afzal Khan, said.
Abdul Jalil frantically searched for his brother who works at the market. Cell phone calls to the brother were not going through.
"People were torn apart," he said. "Who are these people killing innocent people? What do they get out of it? God will not forgive them."
The market is on Islamabad's edges, near a makeshift camp for people displaced from fighting in Pakistan's northwest, as well as refugees from Afghanistan. A nearby supermarket is frequented by middle class families. The Interior Ministry said 22 people were killed and 83 wounded in the blast.
The symbolism of having such a deadly attack in Islamabad — even in an area on the edge of the city and rarely frequented by its elite — is a blow to a Pakistani government trying to increase foreign investment and project an air of security in the capital.
Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan vowed the government would take immediate steps to bolster security in the capital.
A number of Pakistani cities are notorious for large bombings and attacks, particularly the northwestern city of Peshawar and the southern port city of Karachi. But in Islamabad, home to diplomats, generals and top government officials, they are rarer.
On March 3, an attack on an Islamabad court complex killed 11 people. It was the worst attack in the capital since a 2008 bombing of the Marriott Hotel that killed 56 people.
The Baluch claim of responsibility came in a phone call to an Associated Press reporter from a spokesman of the United Baluch Army. The group, which emerged about a year and a half ago, is one of the newer factions among Baluch separatists fighting since the mid-2000s.
The spokesman, Mureed Baluch, said the attack was in retaliation for ongoing arrest and killings of their associates by the security forces in southwest Baluchistan province. The group first emerged about a year and a half ago.
Baluchistan is Pakistan's largest province and is plagued by violence from various factions. Separatists often attack the Pakistani military or other government targets. Sunni Muslim extremists have often targeted members of the Shiite Muslim minority. Members of the Afghan Taliban fighting across the border in their homeland are also believed to be living in the province.
Violence in Baluchistan is escalating, with a 42 percent increase in incidents in March over the previous month, according to figures by the Islamabad-based Pak Institute for Peace Studies which tracks violence across the country.
On Monday, a bomb tore through a railway car in the Baluch town of Sibi, setting the entire wagon ablaze and killing 16 people. That attack was also claimed by the United Baluch Army.
Mohammed Amir Rana, the institute's director, said the Baluch group had claimed attacks in other areas of the country such as southern Punjab province and Lahore, the capital of Punjab province. But, he said, police must still do a thorough investigation to determine who was responsible.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif came to power last May promising to end the years of bloodshed through negotiation instead of military operations.
So far those talks have focused on the Tehrik-e-Taliban, as the Pakistani Taliban is formally called. That group is similar in ideology to the Afghan Taliban but shares a separate leadership and decision-making structure. They mostly operate in the northwest mountainous regions and in the southern city of Karachi.
Many observers question whether it's possible to come to a peace deal with the militants, who they contend have used previous peace deals to simply regroup and fight another day.
Critics also point out that the Pakistani Taliban is made up of numerous factions and even if the umbrella organization agrees to a peace deal, it doesn't mean all the factions will.
Associated Press writer Abdul Sattar in Quetta contributed to this report.