There was blood and chaos and I saw 12 bodies piled up in a pickup van, says witness

A powerful bomb blast during the busy auction time around 8.05 am on Wednesday in the sprawling fruit and vegetable market in Islamabad, killed at least 24 persons and injured close to a hundred. This is the second blast in the capital after the district and sessions court was targeted by suicide bombers on March 3.

The five kg bomb was planted in a carton of guavas, police said adding that it could be set off by timer device. Thousands of people throng the "Sabzi Mandi" as it is called in I -10 sector from 5 am for the auction. Dilawar Khan, a commission agent told The Hindu that the auction was underway and the bomb went off a 100 feet away from him. "I could hear nothing for a while and I saw people falling. I took at least 20-25 people and put them in cars and the ambulances came almost 20 minutes later," he said. The sound of that deafening explosion will stay with him for a while and he had a miraculous escape.

It was a little after 8 am that Naqash, a TV cameraman reached there to find a scene of devastation. "There were dead bodies lying all around and a lot of people were bleeding. Private cars and taxis were taking away the injured to hospital," he said. Zulqarnain Iqbal, a TV reporter heard the blast from the road near the market and got off to check what had happened. "There was blood and chaos and I saw 12 bodies piled up in a pickup van. There were no police or ambulances at that time," he says.

After the blast, police cordoned off the small concrete square where the fruit auction was being held. A crater over a foot deep is in the centre where the bomb went off. Scared workers and commission agents

stood in the stalls far away watching the scene in shocked silence. Gul Mohammed, a commission agent, was having breakfast when he heard the loud explosion in his house opposite the market. His wife thought it was a wall collapse but his son called him to say it was a bomb.

"This is the place where all the fruit crates are unloaded and the stuff is auctioned and taken to other parts of the country," he explains. The bomb was in a cardboard carton, he said pointing to the disarray in front where squished guavas lay around in the hot sun. "When I came here I saw 15 bodies at least and the ambulances came later to take them away. I was too shocked and upset to react," he says. He recalls a bomb blast nearly 15 years ago in the fruit market which killed a lot of people. There was so much panic and commotion and people were running here and there. "It is the season for guavas and that's why this auction was the most crowded. The guavas mainly come from Punjab and this is the central market for the whole province," he adds.

Khaista Rehman came running to the market after the blast to check if his sons were alive." It was a relief to know my children were alive," he said. At the office of the Anjuman Wholesale Fruit Commission Agents, an umbrella group of agents, near the market, there is a furious debate on the need for scanners and more security. Tahir Ayub, general secretary, says that the auction begins at five am daily and this was the biggest market in the region with fruits coming in from all over the place including India by way of LoC, China and Kabul. The auction was almost 90 per cent over when the blast happened, he says.

The market spread over 25 acres is a security nightmare. There is no compound wall and the security guards are not even armed. Mr. Ayub said there was no system to scan the trucks or the goods and the volume of business was very high. There were 300 firms dealing in fruit and an equal number in vegetables. The Capital Development Authority (CDA) is responsible for the development of the market but it did nothing, he adds. The CDA collects Rs 3.5 crore per annum by way of entry fees from the trucks and it is supposed to use this money for the upkeep of the market.

Babu Alim, president of the Anjuman said that at least 100,000 people come and go in the market daily and it works almost round the clock since 1983 when it was moved here. "For 31 years we have been demanding security but who cares," he said. It is mostly poor vendors and daily wage labourers who have been killed or injured. The injured were taken to hospitals in Islamabad and Rawalpindi as the market is almost on the outskirts of the capital. At the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences (PIMS), families desperately looked for their loves ones. Abdul Majeed, a daily wage labourer was trying to locate the body of his brother who died in the blast.

"My nephew too is badly wounded I heard. We were all in the guava market when the blast happened," he says. While 18 persons were brought dead to PIMS, three more succumbed to their injuries, a spokesperson said. Three deaths were reported from a hospital in Rawalpindi. In some cases there were no ambulances to take those who were dead back to their houses and it was a long wait. Anar Gul says, "My uncle, a daily wage labourer, died in the blast and the hospital has no ambulances to take his body home. He has three small children and we are so distraught."