At least 44 people were killed while over 100 were wounded in a suicide blast at a Jamiat Ulema Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) workers’ convention in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s (KP) Bajaur district on Sunday.
The explosion occurred when more than 400 JUI-F members and supporters gathered under a tent in the town of Khar, near the border with Afghanistan.
KP Health Minister Riaz Anwar told AFP that 44 people had been confirmed killed and over 100 wounded.
“It was a suicide attack, with the bomber detonating himself in close proximity to the stage,” he added.
Footage of the site after the blast showed panic-stricken people gathering as ambulances arrived to move the injured to hospitals. Afterwards, a large police contingent cordoned off the area.
Bajaur District Emergency Officer Saad Khan told Dawn.com that Maulana Ziaullah Jan, JUI-F emir in Khar tehsil, was also killed in the blast.
Speaking to the media later at night, KP Inspector General of Police Akhtar Hayat Khan said 10 kilograms of explosives were used in the blast.
He said ball bearings and other explosive materials had been collected from the site. “Investigation is underway and culprits will soon be arrested,” the provincial police chief promised.
Meanwhile, KP caretaker Information Minister Feroze Shah said hospitals across Bajaur and neighbouring areas had been put on high alert.
“We are trying to move critical patients to Peshawar and other hospitals through helicopters,” he said while speaking to Geo News.
“Our utmost priority right now is to provide medical treatment to the injured. The blast site has been cordoned off. Pakistan Army and other institutions are assisting us in the operation,” Jamal added.
Separately, Bajaur District Health Officer Dr Faisal Kamal said more than 150 injured people had been brought to the Bajaur District Headquarters Hospital.
“Over 35 people have been referred to the Timargarh hospital while 15 critically injured persons have been sent to Peshawar via a Pakistan Army helicopter,” he added.
Dawn.com’s correspondent, who was present at the blast site, said a local journalist was among those injured.
In a statement issued in the evening, KP caretaker Chief Minister Azam Khan sought a detailed report on the blast from police.
CM Khan also visited the Combined Military Hospital in Peshawar, where he met and inquired about the health of injured persons. He also expressed his best wishes for the speedy recovery of the wounded and directed the administration to provide them with the best medical facilities.
No one has claimed responsibility for the blast so far.
Rahim Shah, a witness, told Dawn.com that more than 500 people were attending the convention when the blast occurred. “We were listening to a bayan [sermon] when a powerful explosion knocked me unconscious,” he said.
Shah narrated that when he regained consciousness, there was blood everywhere. “People were screaming and even shots were fired,” he added.
Sabeehullah, a 24-year-old JUI-F supporter who had his arm fractured by the blast, said the scale of injuries was horrifying.
“There was utter confusion, with human flesh, limbs, and body parts scattered throughout the area, alongside lifeless bodies.
“I found myself lying next to someone who had lost their limbs. The air was filled with the smell of human flesh,” he said.
PM speaks to JUI-F chief
Later, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif held a telephonic call with JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman and Communications Minister Maulana Asad Mahmood.
He expressed grief and condolence over the blast and regretted the loss of precious lives.
“We are equal participants in your grief,” he said. “The criminals will be truly punished and bringing an end to terrorism is the commitment of the entire nation.”
Moreover, PM Shehbaz extended heartfelt sympathies to the bereaved families. He prayed for the elevation of the ranks of the martyrs, patience for their families, and speedy recovery of the injured persons.
Separately, the premier also held a telephone conversation with KP’s chief secretary and IG police. He directed the officials to provide the best medical facilities to the injured.
PM Shehbaz also instructed that the critically injured persons be transferred to other hospitals on a helicopter.
Furthermore, he ordered an investigation into the incident and vowed to take strict action against the elements involved.
The JUI-F chief, in a statement issued by the party’s media cell, expressed grief over the incident. He sought an inquiry into the attack from Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and the KP government.
“May Allah raise the ranks of martyrs,” Fazl said and prayed for the speedy recovery of the injured.
He also appealed to JUI-F workers to immediately reach hospitals and provide blood donations.
PM Shehbaz strongly condemned the blast at the JUI-F convention. He said terrorists targeted those who advocated the cause of Islam, the Holy Quran and Pakistan.
“Terrorists are enemies of Pakistan and they will be eliminated,” he asserted in a statement released by the Prime Minister’s Office, adding that elements involved in the incident would be meted out strict punishment.
He also sought a report of the incident from Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah and the government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Later in a tweet, PM Shehbaz said attacks on political parties showed that the enemies were against Pakistan’s democratic system.
“Those responsible will be identified and punished. The Pakistani nation, law enforcement agencies and our protectors will never allow such cowardly tactics of the enemy to succeed. The entire nation, including me, is an equal participant in the grief of the families of those who were martyred in the incident,” he added.
Meanwhile, President Arif Alvi prayed for eternal peace for the departed souls and commiserated with the bereaved families. He also wished speedy recovery for the injured and emphasised the timely provision of medical assistance to them.
In a tweet, Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah vowed to bring the perpetrators of today’s attack to justice. “The cowardly acts of terrorists cannot dampen our spirits.”
Earlier, JUI-F leader Hafiz Hamdullah said he was supposed to attend the convention today but could not because of some personal commitments.
“I strongly condemn the blast and want to give a message to the people behind it that this is not jihad but terrorism,” the JUI-F leader said while speaking to Geo News.
He asserted that today’s incident was an attack on humanity and Bajaur.
Hamdullah demanded that the blast should be probed, recalling that this was not the first that the JUI-F had been targetted. “This has happened before […] our workers have been targetted. We raised our voice over this in the Parliament but no action was taken.”
He also extended his condolences to grieving families and urged the provincial government to provide the best medical facilities to the injured.
In a statement on the PPP Media Cell, Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari condemned the blast and extended condolences to the bereaved.
“The federal and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa governments should bring the patrons of terrorists to justice,” he said, stressing that terrorists and their planners should be eliminated.
Former president Asif Ali Zardari said terrorists were everyone’s enemies. “Like Swat, the entire country needs to be cleansed of the nurseries of terrorism,” he stated.
PTI Chairman Imran Khan said he was saddened to learn about the blast and extended condolences to the families of the victims.
“The rise in terror incidents across Pakistan particularly in KP, calls for an urgent need to reconsider our priorities,” he said, adding that the authorities should focus on eliminating terrorism.
Jamaat-e-Islami Senator Mushtaq Ahmed also condemned the blast and extended his condolences over the deaths.
“The federal and provincial governments, forces, intelligence agencies and civil administration have completely failed to protect the people,” he tweeted.
“The return of terrorism proves that the government’s security plan/policy has failed and tribal districts of KP are in the middle of this fire,” the JI senator said and demanded that a joint in-camera session of the Parliament should be called to address the issue of rising terrorism.
The US Embassy in Islamabad also extended its deepest condolences to the families and loved ones of the victims who lost their lives in the blast in Bajaur district.
“We strongly condemn this heinous act of violence, which resulted in the loss of innocent lives and caused harm to many others. Such acts of terror have no place in a peaceful and democratic society. We stand in solidarity with the people of Pakistan during this difficult time,” it said.
Rise in terrorism
Bajaur is one of seven remote districts bordering Afghanistan in a region that was once a focal point in the global war on terror.
Over the past few months, the law and order situation in Pakistan has worsened, with terrorist groups executing attacks with near impunity across the country.
Since the talks with the TTP broke down in November, the militant group has intensified its attacks, particularly targeting the police in KP and areas bordering Afghanistan. Insurgents in Balochistan have also stepped up their violent activities and formalised a nexus with the outlawed TTP.
A report released this month by think tank Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies said the first half of the current year witnessed a steady and alarming rise in terror and suicide attacks, claiming the lives of 389 people across the country.
Last week, a policeman was martyred in a “suicide blast” inside a mosque in the Jamrud area of KP’s Khyber district.
In January, a suicide bomber linked to TTP blew himself up in a mosque inside a police compound in the northwestern city of Peshawar, killing more than 80 officers.
The militant assaults have been focused on regions abutting Afghanistan, and Islamabad alleges some are being planned on Afghan soil — a charge Kabul denies.
Earlier this month, the armed forces of Pakistan expressed “serious concerns on the safe havens and liberty of action available to” the banned TTP in Afghanistan.
“The involvement of Afghan nationals in acts of terrorism in Pakistan is another important concern that needs to be addressed. Such attacks are intolerable and would elicit an effective response from the security forces of Pakistan,” it said.
Additional input from APP, Zahid Imdad and Sanaullah Khan