QUETTA, Pakistan – A bomb hidden in a water tank ripped through a crowded vegetable market in a mostly Shiite neighborhood in a southwestern Pakistani city Saturday, killing at least 81 people and wounding nearly 200, officials said.
Police said many of those wounded in the explosion in Quetta remain in critical condition. The blast, which police said targeted the country’s minority Shiite Muslim sect, left many victims buried under rubble, but authorities did not know how many.
It was the deadliest incident since bombings targeting Shiites in the same city killed 86 people earlier this year, leading to days of protests that eventually toppled the local government.
Shiites have been increasingly attacked by militant groups who view them as heretics and non-Muslims in this Sunni Muslim dominated country. Many of the Shiites in Quetta, including those in the neighborhood attacked Saturday, are Hazaras, an ethnic group that migrated to Pakistan from Afghanistan more than a century ago.
Quetta police chief Zubair Mahmood told reporters that the bomb was hidden in a water tank and towed into the market by a tractor. He said the blast destroyed shops in the neighborhood and caused a two-story building to collapse.
“We fear some victims may be found buried there,” he said.
Mahmood said police did not yet know who was behind the bombing but a local television station reported that Lashker-e-Jhangvi, a Sunni extremist group that has targeted Shiites in the past, had called to claim responsibility.
Senior police officer Wazir Khan Nasir said the bomb, set off in a residential suburb, was detonated by remote control.
Another officer, Samiullah Khan, said the bomb was detonated while dozens of women and children were buying produce for their evening meal. Local residents rushed the victims to three area hospitals, often in private vehicles because there weren’t enough ambulances to transport the victims.
A massive plume of white smoke rose over the area after the bomb blast. Television footage of the scene showed the streets littered with rubble from destroyed buildings, mixed with fruits and vegetables and shattered street carts.
Near one of the hospitals where the dead and wounded were taken, a man stood weeping as people were being taken in on stretchers.
“Look at our misery! We are helpless,” he said.
Members of the minority Shiite sect took to the city’s streets in angry protest, blocking roads with burning tires and throwing stones at passing vehicles.
Many also started firing into the air in an attempt to keep people away from the area in case there was a secondary explosion.
Police cordoned off the area. Most of the Shiites in the area are Hazaras, and they were quick to blame Lashker-e-Jhangvi.
“This evil force is operating with the patronage of certain elements in the province,” said Qayum Changezi, the chairman of a local Hazara organization.