ISLAMABAD – A northwest Pakistani village that tried to resist Taliban infiltration struggled with grief Saturday as families mourned 96 people killed in an apparent revenge suicide bombing at an outdoor volleyball game.
The attack on Shah Hasan Khel village was one of the deadliest in a surge of bombings that have killed more than 600 since October, and it sent a bloody New Year's message to Pakistanis who dare take on the armed Islamist extremists. As rescuers looked for bodies in the rubble, many residents in the village of 5,000 were too scared Saturday to even speculate who carried out the blast.
The suicide bomber detonated some 550 pounds of high-intensity explosives on the crowded field in the village during a volleyball tournament Friday. The blast was probably intending to hit a nearby gathering of tribal elders who oversee an anti-Taliban militia. The committee was debating how to punish relatives of militants suspected in the recent killing of a fellow tribesman.
The blast leveled some three dozen mud-brick homes and covered the village with dust, smoke and the smell of burning flesh. On Saturday, numerous homes received visitors offering condolences, and funeral prayers were held for many victims.
"The people are in severe grief and fear — it is a demoralizing thing," said Raham Dil Khan, a member of the 28-member tribal council who described Friday's meeting. None of the elders was hurt.
The village lies in Lakki Marwat district near South Waziristan, a semiautonomous tribal region where the army has battled the Pakistani Taliban since October. The military operation was undertaken with the backing of the U.S., which is eager for Pakistan to free its tribal belt of militants believed to be involved in attacks on Western troops in Afghanistan.
But the offensive has provoked apparent reprisal attacks across the country. Those behind the strikes appear increasingly willing to hit targets beyond security forces. No group claimed responsibility for Friday's blast, but that is not uncommon when many civilians die.
Across Pakistan's northwest, where the police force is thin, underpaid and under-equipped, various tribes have taken security into their own hands over the past two years by setting up citizen militias to fend off the Taliban.
The government has encouraged such "lashkars," and in some areas they have proven key to reducing militant activity.
Still, tribal leaders who face off with the militants do so at personal risk. Several suicide attacks have targeted meetings of anti-Taliban elders, and militants also often go after individuals. One reason militancy has spread in Pakistan's semiautonomous tribal belt is because insurgents have slain dozens of tribal elders and filled a power vacuum.
Shah Hasan Khel village "has been a hub of militants. Locals set up a militia and expelled the militants from this area. This attack seems to be reaction to their expulsion," local police Chief Ayub Khan told reporters.
Mohammed Qayyum, 22, tried to avoid crying Saturday as he recounted how his younger brother died and his family's house was damaged.
"After the blast, I heard cries, I saw dust, and I saw injured and dead bodies," said Qayyum, who escaped injury. "See this rubble, see these destroyed homes? Everybody was happy before the explosion, but today we are mourning."
Like many others in the village, Qayyum refused to comment when asked who he thought was behind the bombing. The village's residents, many of them farmers, are mainly ethnic Pashtuns, the same group that power the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Raham Dil Khan pledged the local militia would continue to defy militant interlopers, but he said residents needed more support — including weapons — from the government.
"We are Muslim and Pashtuns, and we know how to defend our lives and honor," the 70-something elder said while wielding an AK-47 assault rifle.
Authorities said about 300 people were on or near the field during the blast. Security was provided for the games and the elders.
Local administrator Asmatullah Khan said Saturday that 90 bodies had been identified, while six remained unknown. Thirty-six people were being treated at nearby medical centers. Eight children, six paramilitary troops and two police were among the dead, police said.
The attack was one of the deadliest in years in Pakistan, and the second deadliest since the latest wave of bloodshed began in October. A car bomb killed 112 people at a crowded market in Peshawar on Oct. 28.
Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani vowed Saturday to defeat militants, saying "the agenda of terrorists is to destabilize the country, to create panic and spread fear."
As hundreds of people poured into the village to offer condolences and aid in the rescue effort Saturday, Raees Khan, a 65-year-old who lost five relatives in the blast, showed the palms of his hands to a visiting reporter. "Look at these blisters. We were working all night to dig the dead bodies out of this rubble. We are tired."
He looked down at the pile of rubble beneath him and said, "I don't know whether there are more dead bodies under my feet."