Two suicide bombers blew themselves up at the gates of Pakistan's main weapons complex Thursday, killing 59 people and dashing hopes for an end to turmoil following Pervez Musharraf's ouster as president.
A Taliban spokesman claimed responsibility for the attack, one of the bloodiest yet in Pakistan's intensifying war with insurgent groups that are also destabilizing Afghanistan.
The bombers struck at two different gates just as workers were leaving the sprawling arms facility in Wah, a garrison city 20 miles west of Islamabad.
Rana Tanveer, who was working at a bank about 200 yards from one of the gates where a bomber struck, said he was among the first to reach the scene.
"All around the gate I saw blood and human flesh. People helped the injured and took them in their cars and even on motorbikes to the hospital," he told The Associated Press. "Seven or eight people were already dead and another 10 people were breathing their last."
Tanvir Lodhi, a spokesman for Pakistan Ordnance Factories, said 59 people were killed. Mohammed Azhar, a hospital official, said 70 others were wounded.
Pakistani forces are involved in an escalating battle with Islamic extremists in two nearby regions of the country's violence-plagued northwest, despite government efforts to negotiate peace with extremist groups.
Future attacks vowed
Maulvi Umar, a spokesman for Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, a militant umbrella group, said the suicide bombings were revenge for airstrikes in Bajur, a militant stronghold near the Afghan border.
Umar said militants would carry out similar attacks in other major cities, including Islamabad and the southern port metropolis of Karachi, unless the military halts its operations.
"Only innocent people die when the Pakistan army carries out airstrikes in Bajur or Swat," he said, referring to a mountain valley where the army has vowed to clear out militants who have kidnapped and killed police and troops and burned girls' schools.
"If the army is really fond of fighting, it should send ground forces to see how we fight," Umar told AP by telephone from an undisclosed location.
Regional police Chief Nasir Durrani said the bomber struck as workers were streaming out after a shift change at the weapons complex, Pakistan's largest.
Durrani said experts would try to reconstruct the bombers' faces to try to identify them.
'Why was he punished?'
At the hospital, relatives searched frantically for loved ones as doctors worked to save those most seriously injured.
A young man who gave his name as Mohammad Asif stood wailing after identifying the lifeless body of his 60-year-old father in an ambulance.
"He was a humble man ... What wrong did he do to anyone? Why was he punished? These cruel people have taken away the great shadow of my father," Asif said.
The bombers managed to enter the town undetected, but did not penetrate the tightly controlled weapons complex, which houses about a dozen factories.
According to the army, the factories produce rifles, machine guns and ammunition as well as grenades, and tank and artillery shells. Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said the perimeter is guarded by a dedicated paramilitary force.
Experts have suggested that facilities related to Pakistan's secretive nuclear weapons program are located in the Wah area, possibly including a uranium enrichment plant. Abbas insisted the complex attacked on Thursday was producing only conventional weapons.
Pakistan's ruling coalition government, made up of traditional rivals who were united primarily in their determination to force Musharraf from office, also appeared veering toward collapse.
The two main parties have been unable to bridge key differences, like whether judges fired by the one-time military ruler should be quickly reinstated and who should succeed him as president.
Musharraf, who had been a key supporter of the U.S. war on terrorism, resigned Monday to dodge the humiliation of impeachment following nearly nine years in power.
The coalition government, meanwhile, has resumed debate over how to restore dozens of Supreme Court judges Musharraf fired last year to avoid legal challenges to his rule.
The maneuver deepened his unpopularity, propelling his rivals to victory in parliamentary elections five months ago, and turned the judges into controversial political figures.
Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's party threatened Thursday to leave the ruling coalition unless the judges were quickly reinstated and the coalition's biggest bloc, the Pakistan People's Party, appeared to be lining up smaller parties to keep control of parliament in case that happened.
"The future of this coalition is linked to the restoration of judges," Sharif's spokesman Sadiqul Farooq told The Associated Press. "If the judges are not restored, we will prefer to sit on opposition benches."
Sharif wants to restore the all the justices, who could help him if he decides to seek revenge against Musharraf, who ousted the former premier in a 1999 coup, jailed him and then banished him to exile in Saudi Arabia.
But Asif Ali Zardari, the leader of the Pakistan People's Party, is less enthusiastic. He has accused former chief justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry of being too political.
Analysts say he also may be worried the former chief justice would revive corruption cases against him or facilitate legal action against Musharraf — a destabilizing move sure to dismay the country's Western backers, especially the United States.
The People's Party said Thursday it was committed to restoring the judges but that it had other priorities as well, including improving the lives of ordinary Pakistanis who are struggling with chronic food and fuel shortages.
"We hope the coalition will not break," Farzana Raja, the ruling party's spokeswoman, told Pakistani Waqt news channel.
The coalition also must seek agreement on a candidate for the presidency. The new leader must be elected by lawmakers by mid-September.