ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — At least 24 people were killed Tuesday in the third bombing in as many days in Pakistan's militancy-plagued northwest, as extremists continued to wreak revenge for a U.S.-backed offensive against Taliban guerrillas.
The car bomb ripped through a market in Charsadda, a town in the North West Frontier Province. More than 100 were wounded, and the death toll may be as high as 32, according to some reports.
On Sunday, a suicide attacker targeted the leader of an anti-Taliban militia on the outskirts of the provincial capital, Peshawar, killing 12, and the suicide bombing Monday of a police checkpoint in Peshawar claimed three lives.
Islamic extremists unleashed their latest campaign early last month to coincide with an army ground operation against the Pakistani Taliban stronghold of South Waziristan. More than 300 civilians have died in a wave of bombings and gun attacks, including an attack in a Peshawar shopping district two weeks ago that killed more than 115.
The assault on civilians appears to be an attempt to build public pressure to end the military campaign.
Separately, the Taliban warned Tuesday that Pakistan faces a protracted insurgency.
"We have started guerrilla war against the Pakistani army. We've carried out several actions against the army and inflicted heavy losses on them," Taliban spokesman Azam Tariq said. "They are capturing roads while our people are still operating in the forests and mountains."
Since it launched an offensive Oct. 17 in South Waziristan, the army claims to have killed 495 Taliban, for the loss of 48 soldiers. According to the official account, which can't be verified independently, the army is making rapid progress toward the extremists' home base of Makeen. South Waziristan, on the Afghan border, is the headquarters of the Pakistani Taliban and a crucial refuge for Afghan rebels and al Qaida.
The car bomb in Charsadda exploded at around 4:30 p.m. local time, when the market was full of shoppers, women and children among them. Witnesses said bodies were strewn around the bazaar. Police officials estimated that 110 to 130 pounds of explosives were used, packed with ball bearings and metal shards. Storefronts and parked vehicles were crumpled and shattered.
"There was no security lapse here," local Police Chief Riaz Khan said.
The northwest province is taking the brunt of the violence, and also is hosting those displaced by the fighting, from the Swat valley earlier this year and more recently from South Waziristan. The province is populated mostly by Pashtuns, who compose the biggest ethnic group in Afghanistan.
"This is a war," provincial Information Minister Iftikhar Hussain said. "The (extremist) network has been weakened, but it will take time to defeat them and sacrifices from us. But our struggle will go on until we eliminate the last terrorist."
The government has claimed repeatedly that the Taliban's terrorist attacks are acts of desperation from a movement that's disintegrating, but the sustained nature of the assault indicates that an organized network is able to strike almost at will.
The U.S. has urged Islamabad publicly and privately to take greater military action against the extremists, but many in Pakistan blame the country's relationship with Washington for provoking the extremists, and a significant number believe a conspiracy theory that maintains that the United States is behind the violence.
Anti-Americanism is soaring, and a recent visit by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton didn't dampen it.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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