By HUSSAIN AFZAL
PARACHINAR, Pakistan — An explosion ripped through a campaign rally of a leading Islamist party in Pakistan on Monday, killing 14 people and wounding dozens more, a government official said as the run-up to the country’s May 11 election becomes increasingly dangerous.
The bomb blast at the rally held in the village of Sewak in the northwest Kurram tribal region by the Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam party is the latest incident of violence targeting candidates, political offices and election-related events as the vote approaches. Much of the violence is believed to have been carried out by the Taliban against three liberal and secular parties but Monday’s blast was unique in that it targeted a party believed to have a more favorable relationship with the militant group. No one immediately claimed responsibility for the blast.
The bomb, which was apparently planted near the main stage of the rally, killed 14 and wounded 50 people, said Javed Khan, a government administrator in the Kurram tribal region.
Two party leaders who were speaking at the event escaped unharmed, Khan said.
One of the candidates, Ainuddin Shakir, told a local television station that the blast went off just as the candidates were finishing their rally and leaving the stage. He said it appeared to have been detonated by remote control.
About 2,500 people had gathered at a local religious school to hear the candidates speak, said one man who was in the crowd, Sabir Gul. The massive explosion came just as one of the candidates ended his speech and was leaving the stage, he said.
Another resident, Mohammad Jamil, attended the meeting with his brother and was in the dining hall eating when the blast went off. Political parties often give food to people at rallies who sometimes travel from nearby villages to hear candidates speak. Jamil said people attending the rally had been searched as they went into the gathering.
“There was a deafening sound which stunned me for a while but I quickly moved out of the dining hall,” he said, describing a ‘hell-like’ situation. “There were countless people bleeding and crying for help. My brother Khalil was among them.”
The Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam party is considered supportive of the Afghan Taliban’s fight against the United States and its allies in neighboring Afghanistan. It’s also sympathetic to the Pakistani Taliban, which have been fighting Pakistani troops and would like to establish a hardline Islamic government in Pakistan. The group’s leaders have generally opposed the Pakistani military’s operations against militants in the tribal region and instead called for negotiating with the militants.
The Taliban have claimed responsibility in recent weeks for a string of attacks against secular Pakistani parties that have in general supported military intervention against the militants in the tribal regions.
Interim Prime Minister Mir Hazar Khan Khoso condemned the bomb blast and called on the local government to strengthen protection for candidates in the upcoming election.
The historic vote, scheduled for this Saturday, will be the first time a democratically elected civilian government completes its term and hands over power to another. But the ongoing attacks against candidates, their supporters and political offices has cast a shadow over the momentous occasion, and may deter many people from going to the polls.
There is also concern that the attacks could benefit the parties that take a softer line toward the militants, because they are able to campaign more freely ahead of the vote. Monday’s blast however showed that no side is immune from the violence. Maulana Fazlur Rehman, the head of Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam, has been an outspoken supporter of the Afghan Taliban, but some militants in Pakistan have shown a willingness to target anyone connected to the U.S.-backed government in Pakistan.
In 2011, a suicide bomber struck a convoy in which Rehman was traveling through northwestern Pakistan, killing 12 people. The Taliban has also condemned democracy as a whole, meaning that any political party taking part in the elections could be considered fair game by the militant group.
The violence is multi-faceted and reflects the various militant problems facing the Pakistani government and military.
Most of the violence has come in the northwest, where Pakistan has been battling militants who are intent on overthrowing the government, and in the southern city of Karachi, where Taliban militants have gained a foothold. Numerous attacks have also hit candidates in the southwestern Baluchistan province, where Baluch rebels are battling Pakistani troops.
On Sunday in the southern province of Baluchistan, two gunmen attacked a convoy of an independent candidate and killed two of his police guards.
On Friday, in Karachi, gunmen killed an anti-Taliban election candidate along with his 6-year-old son and a political activist.