KHAR (Pakistan) — The Islamic State group claimed responsibility yesterday for a suicide bombing in Pakistan that killed at least 54 people, including 23 children, at a political party gathering ahead of elections due later this year.
The blast has raised fears Pakistan could be in for a bloody election period following months of political chaos prompted by the ousting of Imran Khan as prime minister in April last year.
Around 400 members of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-F (JUI-F) party — a key government coalition partner led by a firebrand cleric — were waiting Sunday for speeches to begin when a bomber detonated a vest packed with explosives and ball bearings near the front stage.
“I was confronted with a devastating sight — lifeless bodies scattered on the ground while people cried out for help,” Fazal Aman, who was near the tent when the bomb went off, told AFP.
Shaukat Abbas, a senior official with the counter-terrorism department (CTD), told AFP that 54 people were killed, including 23 under the age of 18.
On Monday, the IS group claimed responsibility.
“A suicide attacker from the Islamic State… detonated his explosive jacket in the middle of a crowd” in Khar, the jihadist group’s news arm Amaq said in a statement.
The attack occurred in the town of Khar in the northwestern Bajaur district, just 45 kilometres from the Afghan border, in an area where militancy has been rising since the Taliban took control of Kabul in 2021.
Parliament is likely to be dissolved after it completes its term in the next two weeks, with national elections to be held by mid-November or earlier.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on Pakistani authorities to find those responsible for planning the attack and bring them to justice, his spokesman Farhan Haq said.
Blood-stained shoes and prayer caps littered the site Monday, along with ball bearings and steel bolts from the suicide vest.
Pieces of human flesh, blasted 30 metres from the stage, could still be seen.
Thousands of mourners attended the first funeral ceremonies, including for two cousins aged 16 and 17.
“It was not easy for us to lift two coffins. This tragedy has shattered our family,” said Najib Ullah, the brother of one of the boys.
JUI-F’s leader, cleric Fazl-ur-Rehman, started political life as a firebrand Islamist hardliner, and while his party continues to advocate for socially conservative policies, he has more recently forged alliances with secular rivals.
In the past, he has helped facilitate talks between the government and Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an IS rival.
Last year, IS said it was behind attacks against religious scholars affiliated with JUI-F, which has a huge network of mosques and schools in the north and west of Pakistan.
IS accuses the JUI-F of hypocrisy for being a religious party while supporting secular governments and the military.
JUI-F officials hit out at authorities for failing to provide better security in areas where militants operate.
“I think the state has failed regardless of who is in power,” said Shams uz Zaman, deputy general secretary of its Bajaur branch.
“For God’s sake, take notice of the situation.”
While Rehman’s party never musters more than a dozen or so seats in parliament, it can be crucial in any coalition and his ability to mobilise tens of thousands of religious school students grants him additional clout.
“It is important to consider why workers of a religious inclined political party could have been subjected to such bestial violence,” Dawn newspaper said in an editorial.
“However ultra-conservative the JUI-F’s worldview, the party has chosen to contest power and operate within the parameters set by the Constitution of Pakistan.”
A spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the blast was “an attempt to weaken democracy”.
Rise in attacks
Pakistan has seen a sharp rise in militant attacks since the Afghan Taliban surged back to power in neighbouring Afghanistan in 2021.
In January, a suicide bomber linked to Pakistan’s Taliban blew himself up in a mosque inside a police compound in the northwestern city of Peshawar, killing more than 80 officers.
The militant assaults have been focused in regions abutting Afghanistan, and Islamabad alleges some are being planned on Afghan soil — a charge Kabul denies.
Analysts say militants in the former tribal areas have become emboldened since the return of the Afghan Taliban.
The blast coincided with a visit to the country by a senior delegation of Chinese officials, including Vice Premier He Lifeng, who arrived in the capital Sunday evening. — AFP