A huge blast in a crowded produce market on the outskirts of Islamabad killed at least 23 people and injured dozens on Wednesday, marking the deadliest attack in Pakistan’s capital in years.
The previous day, another explosion ripped through a passenger train traveling from Quetta to Rawalpindi. At least 17 people were killed, including several children.
Along with a deadly blast at an Islamabad court that occurred in early March, these attacks come during sensitive peace talks between the government and the Pakistani Taliban, who agreed to a temporary ceasefire that is set to expire on Thursday.
The Taliban denied responsibility for all three attacks, but other insurgent groups in the country have consistently rejected the negotiations and are clearly not adhering to the truce.
“This is just a demonstration that there are multiple anti-democratic forces and anti-state groups operating within Pakistan, and there isn’t any central command of authority,” Faiysal AliKhan, a fellow at the New America Foundation, told VICE News. He added that both of the recent attacks were the work of a relatively unknown separatist group from Balochistan.
“It’s a very bad precedent for the government to engage with any sort of anti-state group which is committing crimes against the citizens of the country, and questioning the very existence of the country,” he said of the government’s contact with the Taliban. “If you start talking with one group, then what does this mean for all these other groups?”
The talks with Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), as the Pakistani Taliban are formally known, don't appear to be stabilizing to the country. If anything, they appear to have prompted more violence from insurgents that aren’t engaged in the talks.
“We have heard some nationalist leaders in Balochistan who actually said, ‘It seems that the Pakistan government is willing to recognize the TTP, who have committed all these violent crimes. What if we commit crimes like these? Then they will also talk to us,’ ” AliKhan said.
He explained that the various groups share little more than sectarian rhetoric, anti-Shia sentiment, and violent tactics like bombings and kidnappings. They are not unified — on the contrary, clashes among them are not uncommon.
“Dealing with one group does not mean that the others will stop the violence,” Ahmad Majidyar, a security analyst focusing on Pakistan and Afghanistan, told VICE News in March. Instead, the violence has been escalating.
Wednesday's bomb was hidden in a box of guava fruit, police said, and the blast was so massive that it was reportedly felt as far as 6 miles from the site.
"Body parts went everywhere and even hit other people on the head," a market worker who gave his name as Shaheen told Reuters.
This video from a local television station shows the aftermath of Wednesday’s explosion.
Tuesday’s bomb went off as the train pulled into Sibi Railway Station in Balochistan, setting off a fire in a railroad car. Most of the victims burned to death.
The Pakistani Taliban condemned the market attack and blamed it on “invisible hands,” which the BBC described as a veiled reference to secret Pakistani agencies.
“The deaths of innocent people in attacks on public places are saddening,” Shahidullah Shahid, a Pakistani Taliban spokesperson, said in a rather bizarre statement for the militant group. “Such attacks are wrong and against Islamic law.”
Needless to say, the Pakistani Taliban have been behind plenty of attacks that have killed many innocent people. The group’s effort to distance itself from the recent attacks drew derision and accusations of hypocrisy.
Even as the group pledged to put its attacks in Pakistan on hold to engage in preliminary peace talks with the government, it simply redirected its resources to assist the Afghan Taliban. Observers have suggested that the ceasefire was prompted by the threat of an assault by the military, simply to give the Pakistani Taliban time to regroup.
“We need to focus on Afghanistan,” a Pakistani Taliban commander told Reuters in March, citing the Pakistani military’s preparation for an offensive in the country’s restive North Waziristan region. “It is a very crucial time for us and if the North Waziristan operation goes ahead we will lose many of our fighters.”
“Pakistan right now wants to just defuse tension on its own soil, and try to divert the Pakistani Taliban’s attention to Afghanistan, but this is not a lasting solution,” Majidyar said. “Their primary goal is Pakistan, not Afghanistan. So even if they now focus more on Afghanistan, they will come back.”
Political leaders have heralded the talks with the Pakistani Taliban as historic, but others are concerned that peace with the Taliban is a dim prospect. The talks may serve only to legitimize violent insurgencies.
“Everyone is very keen for there to be some sort of action,” AliKhan said. “You never know anymore if you are going to the market, when the next violent act will take place. That sort of instability and insecurity is not something that the Pakistani public has any appetite for.”
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi