PESHAWAR/ISLAMABAD – At least two persons were killed and 19 others injured when a powerful car bomb blast targeted a US consulate vehicle near the UNHCR guesthouse on Abdara Road here on Monday.

Four US Consulate General Peshawar officials, two of them Americans, were also wounded in the morning rush hour attack. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Information Minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain initially said two Americans were among the dead but he retracted his statement after a US embassy statement denied that claim.

Sources said the bomber rammed his explosives-packed car into the consulate vehicle outside the residential quarters used by US consulate staff near the UNHCR guesthouse. They said that technical and administrative staffers of the consulate were sitting in the vehicle when it was targeted.

However, some sources claimed the explosives-laden vehicle was parked beside the targeted vehicle when it exploded. There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but it was at least the third time that the consulate and its staff have been targeted by militants since April 2010. The US embassy in Islamabad in a press release said: “We can confirm that a vehicle belonging to the US consulate in Peshawar was hit in an apparent terrorist attack… Two US personnel and two Pakistani staff of the Consulate were injured and are receiving medical treatment.”

Talking to the Nation Rian Harris, spokesperson for US embassy, said that due to the privacy concerns they are not allowed to disclose the names of the injured persons. The US State Department also said a consulate vehicle was hit in an apparent terrorist strike but it also maintained that no US consulate staff were killed.

One of those killed was identified as Barkat Ali, a resident of swat and employee of provincial welfare organisation Lessail-wal-mahroom but the other deceased could not be identified. The injured were taken to Khyber Teaching Hospital and Lady Reading Hospital. Heavy contingent of police and security forces rushed to the blast site and cordoned off the area.

Television stations repeatedly broadcast an image of a US passport at the scene, its corners scorched by fire. When asked to comment on the US statement, Mian Iftikhar Hussain said: “What can I do if they (US officials) are denying? Police confirmed to me that two of the dead were American diplomats.” He called the bombing “a dangerous move from the terrorists”, adding that “they want to terrorise the foreigners”.

The attack left a crater in the busy street and firemen could be seen putting out a vehicle that was mangled and blackened from the explosion. The vehicle used in the blast has been blown into pieces. Five houses some offices in the area and the bullet proof vehicle of the US consulate were badly damaged in the high intensity blast.

City police chief Imtial Iltaf told the journalist at the blast site that the bomber’s vehicle had been packed with up to 110 kilograms of explosives, including more than 10 mortar shells. Police sources said large number of ball bearings and shrapnel were also used in the bomb.

An eyewitness said he was driving to work at his pharmacy when he heard a deafening blast on the opposite side of the road in University Town neighbourhood. “It was so powerful that it jolted my car with a massive jerk. My head banged the steering wheel and the windshield. I couldn’t understand what had happened. I saw a car on fire. It became a large fireball,” Muhammad Sadid, 35, said.

It was the deadliest attack targeting US nationals in the frontline state of the war on terror for two years. Spokesman for UN High commission for Refugees Ishrat Rizwi said the blast occurred outside the UNHCR guesthouse but all of their officials were safe.

Strongly condemning the bomb attack, Pakistan vowed to bring the individuals behind this crime to justice as soon as possible. “Pakistan government will conduct full investigation of the case and would spare no effort in this regard”, a Foreign Office statement said, adding the attack against diplomats is a despicable act and cannot be condoned by any rationale.

Washington offered help to Islamabad on a full investigation of the attack. “We stand ready to work with Pakistani authorities on a full investigation so that the perpetrators can be brought to justice,” a press statement issued by the US Embassy in Islamabad quoted State Department Spokesperson Victoria Nuland as saying.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton denounced the “cowardly” attack against US consulate personnel in Peshawar and praised local authorities’ response to the scene. Hillary, on a visit to Jakarta shortly after the bombing in Peshawar, said she wanted to “very clearly condemn the attack on our consulate personnel… The information I have is that the Pakistani authorities responded very appropriately”.

Charge d’affaires Ambassador Richard Hoagland also commended Pakistani security forces for saving lives of two American diplomats and two Pakistani local staff of the US consulate by promptly acting and pulling them to safety after their vehicle was attacked.

“I am grateful for the humane professionalism of the local Pakistani security forces who saved the lives”, Ambassador Hoagland said in a statement. He said that in this dangerous world where terrorists can strike at any moment, “we must all work together - Pakistanis and Americans alike - because we have a strong mutual interest in defeating terrorism.”

The bomb attack on US diplomats in Peshawar has brought into spot yet another opportunity for the United Sates and Pakistan to bolster bilateral cooperation in fighting terrorism. Commenting on the Peshawar incident, a leading Pakistani security analyst believed it would help increase cooperation between the two countries. Requesting not to be named, he opined that apart from its tragic aspect, the incident has created an opportunity that both Washington and Islamabad close their ranks for mutual interest in defeating terrorism.