A deadly hotel bomb in Pakistan’s Peshawar underscores its shift from safe metropolis to besieged city where shop keepers are afraid to stock Western films and few foreigners dare to visit.
Up until a few years ago the northwest frontier town stirred up images of romance and intrigue, sitting on a historic trading route to Afghanistan and enticing tourists with bazaars, forts and ancient mosques.
Now kidnappings, killings, intimidation and scores of deadly blasts linked to Taliban militants have terrified Pakistanis and foreigners alike, with seven bombs in the past month alone killing nearly 50 people.
“Peshawar is now a dangerous city,” said Sharafat Ali Mubarak, president of the provincial chamber of commerce.
“Let me make it clear -- even local people are not safe here.”
At least nine people were killed Tuesday in a gun and suicide car bomb attack at the five-star Pearl Continental, one of the few hotels foreigners and dignitaries would still visit, barricaded in a cocoon of high security.
But the apparent ease with which three gunmen in a car and small truck sailed passed a lowered security barrier, shot guards, weaved up to the hotel and detonated their explosives has further stunned an already-cowed city.
“There is an atmosphere of terror. Now militants can hit any place, anywhere and any time. If they can hit an area like the Pearl Continental, they can hit anywhere” said 38-year-old teacher Israr Ahmad.
“We are feeling insecure everywhere. People avoid going to the bazaars and public places. Peshawar has the look of war zone. Police and security forces have established checkpoints everywhere.”
When the bomb struck Peshawar’s ritziest hotel, not even half its opulent 148 rooms were occupied as tourists stay away. Residents who used to dine at riverside restaurants now rush home before dark.
Last year, Afghanistan’s ambassador-designate to Pakistan and an Iranian diplomat were kidnapped in Peshawar, and a US development worker was shot dead.
Foreign governments caution their citizens against unnecessary travel to the city, while some aid workers refuse to spend the night. Two foreign United Nations employees were among the dead in the Pearl Continental.
“We are facing an insurgency, it is a war and we have already advised the foreign nationals to limit their activities,” said Bashir Ahmad Bilour, provincial senior minister in Peshawar.
“Such type of attacks are natural if you are fighting a war.”
Swathes of Pakistan’s northwest are beset by a bloody Taliban uprising, and Peshawar is the gateway to tribal regions where Washington alleges Al-Qaeda fighters are hunkered down, plotting attacks on US and Western targets.
“There are sections in the city where people calling themselves Taliban rule without being challenged,” Pakistan’s Daily Times newspaper said in an editorial Thursday.
Intelligence and security officials said that kidnapping for ransom in Peshawar has become a good source of income for the militant groups, while residents also suffer more mundane daily hardships.
Electricity lines have become a militant target, affecting businesses and depriving some households even of the minor pleasure of watching TV.
Cinemas are on the verge of collapse. The only theatre in Peshawar has been closed for years. Snooker clubs and CD shops have been bombed, and militants prey on Internet cafes as another easy target.
At Karkhano market famous for its smuggled goods, shop keepers have been cowed into removing Western, Indian and local films and CDs and are instead stocking the shelves with religious music and Taliban propaganda.
“The Taliban will bomb my shop if I do not keep the jihadi and religious stocks,” said shopkeeper Ahmad Shah, who gave a false name for fear of retribution from the Islamist extremists.