By Shaiq Hussain and Haq Nawaz Khan
A suicide bomber killed 25 people at a market in northern Pakistan just hours after gunmen assaulted the Chinese Consulate in the southern city of Karachi, killing four.
The two attacks on opposite sides of the country were likely unconnected, but they underline the myriad security challenges Pakistan faces, including those from separatists as well as from Pakistani Taliban based in the northern border regions.
The attacker in the northern Orakzai district drove a motorcycle into the heart of a weekly market in the town of Kalaya and then blew himself up, according to Reuters.
Pakistani authorities have long battled militants in these remote regions near the Afghan border. The region has also been marked by tension between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and the blast was near a Shiite mosque that may have been the target.
Video images from the scene show volunteers and rescue officials gathering dead bodies up from the weekly Friday market where people had been buying vegetables, household items and warm clothes when the blast took place.
“There was a big bang that rocked the whole town. Nothing was clear in the smoke, and there cries and screams from the market,” said Ashraf Ullah, 42, a local merchant. “Many bodies were unrecognizable from damage by the blast. There were dead bodies all around.”
The blast came hours after police in Karachi foiled a morning assault by three gunmen against the Chinese Consulate, which left two policemen, two civilians and the gunmen dead.
The assault took place at about 9 a.m., when the gunmen tried to enter the consulate located in the city’s upscale Clifton area but were stopped by policemen and security guards at the checkpoint, local police officials said.
In addition to the exchange of gunfire, eyewitnesses told Pakistan’s Dawn news channel they heard an explosion. The footage broadcast on TV showed smoke rising from the Chinese consulate building.
“Three attackers have been killed in the exchange of fire with our forces. All the Chinese diplomats and other staff at the consulate are safe, and they remained unharmed during the attack,” Amir Shaikh, senior police official, told journalists on the scene. Because of the quick response of police and guards, the terrorists couldn’t reach the diplomats, he said, adding that the operation has been completed, but a search was still underway to see if there were any other suspects.
According to Pakistani news channels, a separatist group, the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) claimed responsibility for the attack. The group opposes China’s projects in the province and has previously attacked Chinese workers in Baluchistan, a Pakistani province at the heart of the mega project, the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
The $62 billion port and transportation corridor would connect far western China with the Indian Ocean via Kashmir’s lofty mountain passes.
Prime Minister Imran Khan condemned the assault.
“The incident is part of conspiracy against Pakistan and China economic and strategic cooperation,” said a statement from his office. “However, such incidents will never be able to undermine Pak-China relationship that is mightier than Himalaya and deeper than Arabian Sea.”
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang condemned the attack and demanded that “the Pakistani side take practical measures to protect the safety of Chinese institutions in Pakistan.”
The embassy in Islamabad, meanwhile, stressed the countries’ close ties, saying “any attempt to undermine the China-Pakistan relationship is doomed to fail.”
Hassan Askari Rizvi, a Lahore-based security analyst, said the attack was aimed at just that, undermining ties between the two countries, noting that Chinese nationals had been attacked in the past.
“The terrorists want to create panic and fear, and an attack on a diplomatic mission creates international headlines,” he said. “Such attacks show the threat of terror is still very much there and it’s far from over.”