At least 40 killed in blast at Pakistan political convention

At least 40 people were killed in a suspected suicide bomb blast targeting a political convention in northern Pakistan on Sunday, shocking the Pakistani government and prompting new concerns over the mounting scale of attacks as the country prepares for a general election later this year.

The blast struck a gathering for Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, near the border with Afghanistan, and injured around 200 people, according to the provincial information minister, Feroze Jamal Shah Kakakhel. Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam is a political party that supports Pakistan’s government but is also viewed as an ally of the Taliban leadership in neighboring Afghanistan.

As many as 500 people affiliated with the party attended the conference in the Bajaur district as it prepares for the upcoming election, said Ayaz Khan, a party spokesman. Pakistan’s ruling parties agreed to dissolve Parliament next month, which would trigger a general election before the end of the year.

Militant groups hope to gain momentum in the lead-up to that vote, as Pakistan grapples with high inflation, a faltering economy, and tensions between the government and former prime minister Imran Khan.

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Officials said it was unclear who was behind the attack, and no group immediately claimed responsibility. A regional branch of the Islamic State group is known to operate in the area, and Mir Wali, a police spokesman in Bajaur, confirmed to the Washington Post that the blast was caused by a suicide bomber.

Photos released by Pakistani authorities showed victims with severe wounds being taken to nearby hospitals by helicopter.

In a statement, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif said the attack was “abhorrent” and an “act of cowardice,” adding that it was shocking that the attacker “dared to target people gathering to talk about Islam and the prosperity and safety of Pakistan.”

Pakistani officials appear increasingly worried about attacks committed by the Pakistani Taliban group TTP, which is aiming to expand its sphere of influence in tribal areas, including the region that was targeted Sunday.

While Pakistani officials have in recent months blamed the Afghan Taliban leadership for what they see as secret support for the TTP, the Taliban leadership in Afghanistan also condemned Sunday’s attack.

Pakistan reels after bombing kills almost 100, fears more terrorism to come

Noack reported from Paris, Hussain from Islamabad and Khan from Peshawar.

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