At least 44 people have been killed and more than 150 injured in a bomb blast in Pakistan’s north-western Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province that targeted a political party gathering.
Police said the explosion in the Bajaur district, bordering Afghanistan, was caused by a suicide bomb. No group claimed responsibility for the attack.
More than 500 supporters of the conservative Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam party, a government coalition partner, were gathered for a convention ahead of elections later this year when the blast occurred on Sunday afternoon.
Footage showed people ambulances arriving to transfer the injured to hospitals. The district health officer Dr Muhammad Faisal told the Guardian that 40 dead and 150 injured were brought to a hospital in Bajaur.
“The death toll could rise further,” he said, adding that 20 injured people were in a critical condition. A health emergency was declared in the district hospital and in adjoining areas, and some patients were moved by helicopter to Peshawar hospitals.
The provincial health minister Riaz Anwar said later that the death toll had risen to 44.
A Bajaur district emergency officer, Saad Khan, said the explosion happened when the JUI-F leaders were addressing the gathering. Maulana Ziaullah Jan, a key JUI-F leader of the Khar area, was killed in the blast.
Political gatherings and meetings are being held across the country to mobilise supporters for the elections due in October. Pakistan’s government is due to dissolve in the next few weeks and political parties have started preparing the campaigns.
“We condemn these brutal attacks on our workers and leadership as general elections in Pakistan are approaching. The militants are creating fear and started targeting political gatherings,” said Kamran Murtaza, a JUI-F senator. “We are against this militancy and there is fear of more attacks on the political gatherings so our political party could not fully campaign for this year’s elections.”
The prime minister, Shehbaz Sharif, and president, Arif Alvi, so condemned the attack and asked officials to provide all possible assistance to the wounded and the bereaved families.
The JUI-F party is headed by the Islamist cleric Fazlur Rehman, who initiated his political career as a firebrand hardliner but has softened his political image in recent years to make alliances with secular parties.
Bajaur is one of several remote districts bordering Afghanistan in a region known for militancy in the past. The area remained a focus in the global “war on terror” in previous decades.
There has been a sharp rise in attacks in Pakistan since the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan in 2021. The Taliban government condemned Sunday’s blast in a statement by their spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid.
Pakistan’s military says militants are operating from the safe havens in Afghanistan and it has threatened to mount an “effective response” in the wake of the recent attacks.
Pakistan’s local Taliban group, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, known as TTP, has increased its attacks on security officials, including army and the police officers. In January a TTP suicide bomber blew himself up in a mosque inside a police compound in the north-western city of Peshawar, killing more than 80 officers.