US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton kicked off talks in Pakistan, as a car bomb ripped through a market in Peshawar killing at least 43 people.
“It was a huge bomb blast, heard in almost all the city,” Anwar Shah told AFP by telephone.
Blast rips through Peshawar
A large blaze broke out after the explosion, which came just hours after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Pakistan’s capital Islamabad for three days of talks with political and military leaders.
Meanwhile Clinton, promising new investments while fending off bitter criticism of Washington’s policies from within the anti-terror ally, arrived just hours before the blast that also wounded at least 35.
“We are turning a page on what has been in the last several years primarily a security anti-terrorist agenda,” Clinton told reporters travelling with her.
“It remains a very high priority. But we also recognise that it’s imperative that we broaden our engagement with Pakistan,” she added, pledging that the United States wanted to “strengthen democracy” and civilian institutions.
Her arrival comes at a critical juncture for Pakistan, where a rising number of audacious attacks has shown Al-Qaeda and Taliban-linked extremists can target anyone at anytime, and with the military pressing a major offensive.
The Pakistan-US alliance can be uneasy particularly among the general public in both countries. The United States, which is heavily committed in Afghanistan, relies on Pakistan for regional stability and to fight militants.
Pakistan relies on US funds
Pakistan, whose government is cash-strapped and the economy battered, relies on US cash and weapons to fight against extremism and militancy.
Clinton acknowledged there can be “misunderstanding” and “miscommunications”, but stressed that the Obama administration was committed to building a long-term relationship with the troubled country.
“Nine months is not a long period of time to turn around a relationship that has a lot of scars,” Clinton told reporters.
“It’s fair to say that we have really increased the level of conversation and sharing of information over nine months,” Clinton said.
US keen to bolster government
The United States is keen to bolster the civilian government, whose relations with the powerful military have been fraught, following on from a massive 7.5 billion dollar non-military aid package already signed into law.
The military and political opposition slammed the package — designed to help Pakistan fight Islamist insurgency by building schools, training police and strengthening democracy — for allegedly violating Pakistan’s sovereignty.
Clinton said she was “concerned” by the opposition and reiterated that the bill imposed no conditions on Pakistan, pledging further assistance.
“We will be making some announcements about some of the investments we are making with Pakistan on the civilian side,” she added referring to jobs, reliable sources of energy, education and healthcare.
Insurgency to be ‘stamped out’
Around 30,000 troops are pressing an assault against Pakistani Taliban fighters holed up in South Waziristan, part of the tribal belt on the Afghan border where US officials say Al-Qaeda is plotting attacks on the West.
Clinton said it was “important to recognise the high price the Pakistanis are paying” in the war on Islamist militancy.
“They (the military) are extraordinarily committed and we have to support them the way we can,” said Clinton, who is expected to meet some of the more than 200,000 people who have been displaced by the latest offensive.
But another area of concern is nuclear proliferation. The United States has warned that the reputed father of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb, Abdul Qadeer Khan, is still a proliferation risk after being given freedom of movement.
“We want to encourage Pakistan to join with us in the non-proliferation review conference that will be held next spring,” Clinton told reporters.
“We want them to really understand how serious a threat we face.”
During her three-day visit, she is due to hold talks with the political and military leadership, meet those displaced by the conflict in Waziristan, the political opposition and reach out to civil society to improve the US image.
“WeGÇÖre trying to reach more broadly into the society,” she said in a bid to reverse “misconceptions” about the United States in Pakistan.