PESHAWAR, Pakistan — A powerful car bomb ripped through a busy marketplace in Peshawar, the regional capital of northwestern Pakistan, early Sunday, killing 40 people in the third major attack in and around the city in the past week.
The explosion occurred in the historic Qissa Khwani bazaar in the old quarter of the city, roughly 2 miles from the site of a double suicide bombing of a Christian church a week earlier that killed dozens of people.
Investigators said the blast was caused by homemade explosives and artillery shells that had been hidden in a car and set off by remote control.
The dead included 14 members of one family who had come to Peshawar from a nearby village to distribute wedding invitations.
Rescue workers cut through the wreckage of burning vehicles and destroyed buildings in an effort to find survivors. Television stations carried graphic images of the carnage, which underscored to Pakistanis across the country the continuing threat from the Taliban and allied militant groups.
“The people behind this are not human,” said Ghulam Mohammad, who was looking for a relative’s body at a hospital. “This is the work of animals.”
The Pakistani Taliban, however, denied that it was responsible for the latest attack.
“We have nothing to do with today’s bomb blast,” said Shahidullah Shahid, a Taliban spokesman. “We have made it clear several times that it is not our policy to target the general public. We condemn it and ask the government to ascertain its perpetrators.”
The attack came after a particularly bad week across Pakistan. An earthquake killed at least 300 people in a remote part of Baluchistan, the country’s largest but least populous province, and three major militant attacks in Peshawar killed at least 140 people.
Last Sunday, the suicide attack on the nearby All Saints Church killed 85 people, and a bombing on a crowded bus Friday killed 21 government employees as they traveled home for the weekend. The Sunni militant group Jundullah claimed responsibility for the church attack, saying it targeted Christians to avenge the deaths of Muslims killed by US drone strikes.
“Collecting the dead and digging graves — this is unspeakable,” the deputy city commissioner, Zaheerul Islam, said Sunday. “I don’t know what to say anymore.”
The attack Sunday took place in the Qissa Khwani, or storytellers’ bazaar, which takes its name from ancient times when merchants and travelers from Central Asia stopped there to rest and share their stories. Some of the tea stalls from that time still exist.
Police officials said at least 440 pounds of explosives were used to make the bomb, which left a crater that was 3 feet deep. The explosion blew up storefronts, some of which caught fire, destroyed at least three shops, and damaged dozens more. Traders announced three days of mourning.
The violence also came at a time of intense political debate over whether the government should hold peace talks with Taliban insurgents in a bid to end the bloodshed.
The opposition leader Imran Khan, whose party runs the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial government, advocates peace talks and putting a halt to military operations in the tribal regions.
Khan prompted controversy last week when, days after the church bombing, he called on the government to allow the Pakistani Taliban to open an office that would facilitate talks, much as was done for the Afghan Taliban in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar.
But experts say that the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban are different movements — the Pakistani version is seen as being more ideologically driven, with a narrower political base — while political critics say that a policy of appeasement will only embolden the militants.
Speaking at the site of the bombing Sunday, Ayesha Gulalai Wazir, a lawmaker with Khan’s party, said such attacks were intended to damage the prospects of negotiations. “Some forces don’t want the talk process to start,” she said.
Separately, at least five people were killed in what appeared to be a US drone strike in North Waziristan, a tribal district that is a hotbed of local and foreign militancy.
A Pakistani intelligence official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the dead included militants from the Punjabi Taliban and the Haqqani network, which has carried out attacks on NATO forces in Afghanistan.
The Pakistan government condemned both the bomb blast and the drone attack.
Pakistani political leaders have repeatedly urged the United States to end drone attacks on their soil, a position that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif reiterated in an address to the UN General Assembly in New York on Friday.
Sharif’s new government has said it would like to negotiate with the militants to end the bloodshed, but so far those efforts have made little progress.
On Saturday, a spokesman for the Taliban said Sharif’s demand that the militants lay down their weapons and respect the constitution indicated that the new leader is not serious about peace talks, the Associated Press reported. Previously Sharif had not given preconditions for the talks.
Many in Pakistan support talks with the militants, whom they see as fellow Muslims unfairly targeted by the military at the behest of the US government.