Bomb explosion kills at least 40 people at Islamist political rally

A bomb at a rally being held by supporters of a hardline cleric and political leader in Pakistan has killed at least 40 and injured more than 150 people.

Dozens of people were also injured in the explosion in north-west Bajaur district, where Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) was holding a meeting.

Police said the worker’s convention of Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s, Jamiat Ulema Islam party was taking place on the outskirts of Khar.

Senior police officer Nazir Khan said some of those injured were taken to the city’s main hospital in critical condition and the death toll could increase.

Initially police said 10 people were killed but later more bodies were moved to a hospital bringing the death toll to 35.

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Mr Khan said some of the wounded were taken to the city’s main hospital in critical condition and the death toll could increase.

Azam Khan, head of the emergency room at Khar’s main hospital, said 35 bodies were brought to the hospital and some were taken back by relatives while the number of wounded was now more than 100.

Government administrator Mohibullah Khan Yousufzai also said the death toll rose to 35 and the number of wounded was well over 100. He said the serious wounded people were being airlifted to provincial capital, Peshawar, for better medical care.

Mr Rehman is considered to be a pro-Taliban cleric and his political party is part of the coalition government in Islamabad.

Nobody has immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, but the Islamic State group operates just across the border in Afghanistan.

It is not known whether Mr Rehman was present. Meetings are being organised across the country to mobilise supporters for upcoming elections.

The authorities have declared a health emergency at the district hospital.

A regional leader of the JUI-F, Maulana Ziaullah, was killed in the blast, local officials have said.

Bajur used to be a haven for Islamic militants. It is the former stronghold of the Pakistani Taliban, known as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP, a militant group that is a close ally of the Taliban government of Afghanistan. The TTP was in recent years evicted from the area as a result of operations by the Pakistani military.

In a statement sent to The Associated Press, the TTP condemned the bombing, saying it was aimed at pitching Islamists against each other. Zabiullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Afghan Taliban, also condemned the bombing.

‘Such crimes cannot be justified in any way,’ he said in a message on Twitter, which has recently been rebranded as X.

Though a separate group, the TTP remains a close ally of the Afghan Taliban, who seized power in Afghanistan in mid-August 2021.

The takeover emboldened the TTP who unilaterally ended a ceasefire agreement with the Pakistani government last November and have since stepped up attacks across the country.

One of the victims, Adam Khan, 45, was hit by splinters in his leg and both hands.

He said it was around 4pm local time when the explosion knocked him to the ground.

‘There was all dust and smoke around and I was under some injured people from where I hardly (could stand) up but only to see chaos and some scattered limbs,’ he said.

No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, but the terrorist group calling itself Islamic State operates across the border in Afghanistan.

The JUI workers convention was arranged in a hall close to a market but later tents were added because of the large number of supporters who turned out.

The venue was being guarded by party volunteers with batons. An announcement was being made for the arrival of Abdul Rasheed, a senior leader of the party, when the bomb exploded.

The bombing was one of the four worst attacks in the north-west since 2014, when 147 people, mostly schoolchildren, were killed in a Taliban attack on an army-run school in Peshawar.

In January, 74 people were killed in a bombing at a mosque in Peshawar. More than 100 people, mostly policemen, died in a bombing at the city’s mosque at police headquarters in February this year.

District health officer Dr Faisal Khan said 40 bodies and 150 wounded from the blast were at Khar’s main hospital. Some of the wounded were in critical condition and were being transferred to a facility in Peshawar and the adjoining district of Dir, including by army helicopters.

Prime Minister Shabaz Sharif, President Arif Alvi and other leaders condemned the attack and asked officials to provide all possible assistance to the wounded and the bereaved families.

Maulana Ziaullah, the local chief of Mr Rehman’s party, was among the dead.

Senator Abdur Rasheed and former politician Maulana Jamaluddin were also on the stage but escaped unhurt. Party officials said Mr Rehman was not at the rally.

Mr Rasheed, the regional chief of the party, said the attack was an attempt to remove JUI from the field before parliament elections in November but he said such tactics will not work.

Mr Rehman is considered to be a pro-Taliban cleric and his political party is part of the coalition government in Islamabad. Meetings are being organised across the country to mobilise supporters for the coming elections.

‘Many of our fellows lost lives and many more wounded in this incident. I will ask the federal and provincial administrations to fully investigate this incident and provide due compensation and medical facilities to the affected ones,’ he said.

Mohammad Wali said he was listening to a speaker address the crowd when the huge explosion temporarily deafened him.

‘I was near the water dispenser to fetch a glass of water when the bomb exploded throwing me away to the ground,’ he said. ‘We came to the meeting with enthusiasm but ended up at the hospital seeing crying wounded people and sobbing relatives taking bodies of their loved ones.’

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