Death toll rises to 54 in Pakistan suicide bombing

A Pakistani police officer stands guard at the site of Sunday’s suicide bomb attack in the Bajur district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan (Mohammad Sajjad/AP/PA)
A Pakistani police officer stands guard at the site of Sunday’s suicide bomb attack in the Bajur district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan (Mohammad Sajjad/AP/PA)

Pakistan held funerals on Monday for victims of a massive suicide bombing that targeted a rally of a pro-Taliban cleric the previous day as the death toll climbed to at least 54 and the government vowed to hunt down those behind the attack.

No one immediately claimed responsibility for Sunday’s bombing, which also injured nearly 200 people. Police said their initial investigation suggests the Islamic State group’s regional affiliate could be behind the attack.

The victims were all from the Jamiat Ulema Islam party, which is headed by hardline cleric and politician Fazlur Rehman.

He did not attend the rally, held under a large tent close to a market in Bajur, a district in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province that borders Afghanistan.

Pakistan Bomb
The site of Sunday’s bomb attack in the Bajur district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan, in which at least 45 people died (Mohammad Sajjad/AP/PA)

The IS regional affiliate — known as the Islamic State in Khorasan Province — is based in neighbouring Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province and is a rival of the Afghan Taliban.

Bajur was a stronghold of the Pakistani Taliban — a close ally of Afghanistan’s Taliban government — before several Pakistani army offensives that ended in 2016 claimed to have driven them out of the area.

At least 1,000 of the cleric’s supporters had gathered in Bajut on Sunday as part of their party’s preparations for the next parliamentary elections, expected some time in October or November after the current parliament’s five-year term ends.

“People were chanting God is Great on the arrival of senior leaders, when I heard the deafening sound of the bomb,” said Khan Mohammad, a local resident who said he was standing outside the tent.

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif is expected to dissolve the parliament in August to pave the way for the vote.

Mr Rehman’s party is part of Sharif’s coalition government, which came to power in April 2022 by ousting former Prime Minister Imran Khan through a no-confidence vote in the legislature.

Mr Khan also condemned the bombing.

Dozens of people who received minor injuries were discharged from hospital while the critically wounded were taken to the city of Peshawar by army helicopters.

The death toll on Sunday was reported to be 44 but rose to 45 on Monday as a critically wounded person died at a hospital, doctors said.

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An injured boy in hospital following Sunday’s suicide bomb attack (Mohammad Sajjad/AP/PA)

Mr Sharif called Mr Rehman to express his condolences and assure the cleric that those who orchestrated the attack would be punished.

The bombing has also drawn nationwide condemnation, with ruling and opposition parties offering condolences to the families of the victims. The US and Russian embassies in Islamabad also condemned the attack.

Abdul Rasheed, a senior leader in Mr Rehman’s party said the bombing was aimed at weakening the party but that “such attacks cannot deter our resolve”.

The Pakistani Taliban also distanced themselves from the attack. The outlawed Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP, said the attack aimed to set Islamists against each other.

Zabihullah Mujahid, the spokesman for the Afghan Taliban, posted on the social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter, that “such crimes cannot be justified in any way”.

The bombing came hours before the arrival of Chinese Vice Premier He Lifeng in Islamabad, where on Monday he was to participate in an event to mark a decade of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a package under which Beijing has invested billions of dollars in Pakistan.

In recent months, China has helped Pakistan avoid a default on sovereign payments. Some Chinese nationals have also been targeted by militants in northwestern Pakistan and elsewhere.

Pakistan China
Pakistan’s interior minister Rana Sanaullah, second right, shake hands with Chinese Vice Premier He Lifeng at Islamabad International Airport (Pakistan Prime Minister’s Office via AP/PA)

Feroz Jamal, the provincial information minister, said police were “investigating this attack in all aspects.”

Sunday’s bombing was one of the four worst attacks in northwestern Pakistan 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. And in February, more than 100 people, mostly policemen, died in a bombing at a mosque inside a high-security compound housing Peshawar police headquarters.