PESHAWAR, Pakistan — A huge car bomb tore through a congested market of narrow alleys and crowded stalls in Peshawar on Wednesday, killing at least 90 people, many of them women, while 160 more were injured, many of them seriously, local authorities said. The explosion came about three hours after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton arrived in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, a 90 minute drive away, underscoring the challenges facing American policy in a nation that has become skeptical of Washington’s long-term commitment.
Mrs. Clinton was in closed-door meetings with senior government officials in Islamabad at the time of the explosion in Peshawar. “These attacks on innocent people are cowardly; they are not courageous; they are cowardly,” she declared later.
“If the people behind these attacks were so sure of their beliefs, let them join the political process,” she told reporters. “They know they are on the losing side of history. But they are determined to take as many lives with them as their movement is finally exposed for the nihilistic, empty effort it is.”
While there was no immediate claim of responsibility, the bombing was likely to be seen as a response by Pakistani militants to a campaign against them by the Pakistani military in their stronghold of South Waziristan along the Afghan border.
The offensive has already triggered a wave of militant attacks, but Wednesday’s was the deadliest so far.
“The militants want to destabilize the government and intimidate the public,” Mehmood Shah, a retired brigadier and defense analyst based in Peshawar, told GEO news network. As long as the military operation continues, he said, “we can expect such attacks to carry on.”
The blast seemed to represent an escalation in the militant response, because the bombers chose a more congested area than in previous attacks. Many of those killed and wounded were women, a doctor at Peshawar’s Lady Reading Hospital said.
Mian Iftikhar Hussein, the provincial information minister of North-West Frontier Province, of which Peshawar is the capital, said the death toll, which climbed rapidly as the full extent of the carnage emerged, was in excess of 80. Hospital officials said 87 bodies had been brought in from the scene of the explosion, where, according to witnesses, as many as three clusters of shops on narrow lanes and passageways collapsed and fires raged out of control.
Three hours after the explosion, people were still trying to dig bodies and survivors out of the rubble, witnesses said, and white smoke wreathed the wrecked buildings. Sahibzada Anees, the deputy coordination officer in Peshawar, said most of the 90 dead were women and children, adding that some of the wounded were in critical condition. He said Peshawar was unable to cope with such a large-scale attack because it did not have enough trained firefighters and could not move excavators into the narrow streets to rescue those buried alive.
Government officials also acknowledged that Peshawar, the capital of the North-West Frontier Province, was not equipped to deal with a barrage of terror attacks.
On Wednesday, an intelligence officer said officials had intercepts of the Taliban planning to carry out major terrorist attacks in Peshawar, which has increasingly become a target of the Taliban in the past year, in part because of its proximity to the tribal areas. Azam Khan, the senior most civil servant in the city, said there were inadequate numbers of police.
“The police strength of Peshawar cannot secure everything,” he said. The militants had penetrated a three-ring police cordon around the city, he said.
Earlier this month, a blast in Peshawar killed at least 48 people in what was described at the time as the biggest attack of its kind in Pakistan in months.
The explosion Wednesday was in the same general area. Filled with small stores selling fabric and general merchandize, the old market is always congested with shoppers and traders and presents an easy target for the militants.
The Bomb Disposal Squad said more than 300 pounds of explosives had been packed into the car used in Wednesday’s attack — three times the amount used earlier this month. According to intelligence officials, speaking in return for customary anonymity, Peshawar had been gripped with rumors on Tuesday that two cars laden with explosives were in the city.
Television images Wednesday showed debris scattered on the site of the attack. Plumes of smoke billowed out of old buildings with destroyed storefronts. Security forces fired in the air to disperse crowds of onlookers who were apparently hampering relief efforts.
In the immediate aftermath, survivors scrambled to look for relatives at the apparent epicenter of the blast in Pipal Mandi — a narrow lane filled with shops selling food, grains and other groceries and adjoining a fabric market frequented mostly by women. Police immediately closed down all markets in the city, and police reinforcements took up positions.
“I rushed out of my shop immediately after the blast. There was a huge explosion. I saw bodies laying around and wounded crying for help. I had never seen a situation like this in my whole life,” Noor Muhammad, a shopkeeper from a nearby market, said.
At the colonial-era Lady Reading Hospital, an official said medics were overwhelmed by the casualties.
“A state of emergency has been declared at the hospital. We don’t even have time to count the bodies. Its absolutely mayhem here. We have called for blood donation to meet with the crisis,” the official said. Many officials spoke in return for anonymity under government rules.
A local government official said some people were still trapped under the rubble. “People have thronged the scene; they have made it difficult for us to remove the rubble and retrieve bodies and those still alive,” he said.
The explosion coincided with renewed unrest just across Pakistan’s border in Afghanistan, where an attack claimed by the Taliban killed nine people — including six United Nations employees — at a villa in the capital, Kabul, early on Wednesday while, separately, a rocket slammed into the city’s main luxury hotel, the Serena.
Mrs. Clinton landed in Pakistan Wednesday for a three-day visit, saying she was determined to broaden America’s relationship with Pakistan beyond the security and antiterrorism concerns that have dominated ties and sowed mutual suspicion.
“It is unfortunate that there are those who question our motives, who perhaps are skeptical that we are going to commit to a long-term relationship,” Mrs. Clinton said to reporters traveling with her to Pakistan. “I want to try to clear the air on that while I’m in the country.”