PESHAWAR - At least 17 people were killed and 53 others injured when a bomb exploded inside a bus carrying government employees in front of Sonehri Masjid here yesterday.

Edhi sources and eyewitness said the bomb was planted under a seat in the central section of the bus which exploded with a big bang at 7:30 am. Saddar, the site where the blast occurred, is a congested and busy route of the city. However, majority of the shops and nearby government high school were closed at the time of the incident. Three women were also among the dead.

Lashkar-e-Islam, a militant group allied with the Pakistani Taliban, claimed responsibility, saying the attack was carried out to avenge a military court’s sentencing of 13 militants to death on Tuesday.

The passenger bus was carrying government employees of Civil Secretariat from Malakand Dargai area and was heading towards Hayatabad to drop them at various government departments.

A survivor said the vehicle appeared to leap in the air after the explosion. “A huge blast occurred and I felt that the bus had jumped in the air. I could only see flames and smoke in the rear of the bus. People started crying. I got an injury on my head and light wounds on the body,” said Faqir Gul, 32, a shopkeeper from Charsadda district.

“Another injured from the bus blast has expired and the death toll is now 17,” said Jamil Shah, a spokesman for Lady Reading Hospital.

“A total of 47 wounded were brought to hospital and many have been discharged after first aid. Five people among the 19 injured admitted are still critical,” the spokesman said.

Senior police official Kashif Zulfiqar confirmed the latest toll.

Bomb disposal officials said a four-kilogram improvised explosive device had been planted near the bus’ gas cylinder and appeared to have been detonated remotely.

“The IED was fitted with ball bearings and was planted beneath the sixth row of seats from the back,” police official Abbas Majeed added.

Rescue workers carried the injured from the blue bus on stretchers to waiting ambulances.

The blast sent a wave of fear and panic among the residents of the locality. At least 53 injured were brought to hospitals, however, some injured having minor wounds were discharged after first aid.

Edhi ambulances reached the site and took part in relief activities. Besides Edhi ambulances, Rescue 1122 workers also shifted the dead and injured to Lady Reading Hospital Peshawar.

Moving scenes were witnessed in the emergency ward of Lady Reading Hospital where relatives were desperately searching bodies of their loved ones. Some of the dead bodies were badly mutilated and were beyond recognition.

Police and FC contingent also reached immediately on the site and cordoned off the area. Sniffer dogs and bomb disposal squad also rushed to the site and checked the bus to avert any follow up blast. According to bomb disposal squad around 10 kilogram explosives were used in the time device blast.

Taking to journalists, SP Cantonment said the bomb was planted in middle part under a seat and was detonated with a time device. Chief capital city police Mubarik Zeb said probably the bomb was planted Tuesday night when the bus was parked at a petrol pump.

Earlier in June 2012, a similar attack in Gulbela had claimed 17 lives. As many as 40 people were also wounded in the incident. Another blast in September 2013 had killed 18 people in the same area. In both the incidents employees working in Peshawar Secretariat were targeted by the terrorists.

Insurgency in Pakistan began after the US-led invasion of neighbouring Afghanistan in 2001, which led to a spillover of militants across the border and a surge in recruitment for Pakistani extremist groups.

The conflict reached new heights in 2007 when various militant factions came together under the umbrella of Pakistani Taliban group.

The group entrenched itself in the border tribal areas and made territorial gains.

The army launched the latest of a series of offensives in the region in 2014 to try to wipe out militant bases and end the insurgency that has cost thousands of lives.

Overall levels of violence have fallen, with 2015 seeing the fewest civilian and military and police casualties since 2007.

But the militant group is still able to carry out periodic bloody attacks, particularly in the northwest.

A suicide bomber killed 18 people and injured 31 in a court complex in Shabqadar last week, in an attack which the Taliban described as revenge for the hanging of Mumtaz Qadri.

The TTP’s Jamatul Ahrar faction claimed responsibility, saying it avenged the hanging of Mumtaz Qadri - who gunned down governor of Punjab in 2011 over the governor’s call to reform the blasphemy law.

Qadri was hanged on February 29. They said it demonstrated the government’s resolve to uphold the rule of law.

NADER BUNERI/Agencies