At Least 35 Dead in Blast at Political Rally in Pakistan

At Least 35 Dead in Blast at Political Rally in Pakistan

  • Blast kills Islamist politician.

  • Officials suspect the Islamic State.

  • Recent attacks stoke tensions with Afghanistan.

By Christina Goldbaum

July 30, 2023

Outside a hospital on Sunday after an explosion in Bajaur, a district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province near Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan.Credit…Hanifullah Khan/EPA, via Shutterstock

An explosion at a political rally on Sunday in northwest Pakistan killed at least 35 people and injured 200 more, officials said, the latest sign of the deteriorating security situation in Pakistan, where some militant groups have become more active over the past two years since finding a haven in neighboring Afghanistan under the Taliban administration there.

The blast occurred about 4 p.m. in Bajaur, a district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province near Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, said Feroz Jamal, the provincial information minister. It targeted a political rally organized by Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl, an Islamist party that is part of the governing coalition in Pakistan.

Death Toll Expected to Rise

The death toll was expected to rise, officials said, and a rescue operation to recover injured people was continuing Sunday evening. “The government is trying to shift critical patients to Peshawar and other hospitals through helicopters,” Mr. Jamal said. A state of emergency has been imposed in the hospitals in Peshawar, the provincial capital.

A local leader of the political party who was onstage when the explosion occurred, Maulana Ziaullah, was among those killed. No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack. Officials said that they suspected it might have been orchestrated by an Islamic State affiliate in the region that is active in northwest Pakistan and that has previously targeted members of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl.

Maulana Fazlur Rehman, the head of the party, expressed his sorrow and regret over the explosion, according to a statement published by the party’s media wing. Mr. Rehman called on Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif as well as the chief minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to conduct a thorough inquiry into the explosion.

A Surge in Militancy

The blast was the latest attack to rattle Pakistan, where militant groups — including the Pakistani Taliban, known as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan or T.T.P., and the Islamic State affiliate in the region, the Islamic State Khorasan Province — have become more active in recent years. This year, the T.T.P. attacked a mosque in Peshawar, killing more than 100 people, and waged an hourslong assault on Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi.

The rise of militancy in recent months has stoked tension between Pakistan and the Taliban administration in Afghanistan. While Taliban security forces have cracked down on Islamic State militants since seizing power in August 2021, Pakistani officials have accused the Taliban administration of providing a haven for the Pakistani Taliban. Taliban officials have denied that accusation.

On Sunday, the Taliban administration also strongly condemned the attack in Bajaur. “Such crimes are neither permissible nor justifiable in any way,” Zabihullah Mujahid, spokesman for the administration, said on Twitter.

Political Fallout

The attacks have also raised concerns that the deteriorating security situation could dampen political campaigning ahead of the country’s next general election, expected in the fall, and dissuade voters from turning out at the polls.

The attacks “will play on the minds of the public and politicians both,” said Abdul Basit, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies who covers extremism and militancy in South Asia, adding, “It can result in dull election campaigns and low voter turn, undermining the credibility of upcoming general elections.”

Zia ur-Rehman and Salman Masood contributed reporting.

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