CHARSADDA, April 28: At least 28 people were killed and over 40 others injured when a suicide bomber blew himself up in an apparent attempt to kill federal Interior Minister Aftab Ahmad Khan Sherpao on Saturday evening. Mr Sherpao survived the attack but sustained injuries on his legs from flying shrapnel and pellets.

“It was a miracle. I don’t know how I survived,” the interior minister told Dawn at his residence in Peshawar. “It’s part of the game and such acts can not break our resolve,” a composed Sherpao said.

Police investigators said the suicide bomber was less than 10 feet from the interior minister when he detonated the explosive strapped around his body. “Mr Sherpao has had a miraculous escape,” a police official said.

The suicide bomber struck while Mr Sherpao was proceeding towards his inter-cooler jeep after addressing his People’s Party workers at Station Koroona in Charsadda town, about 28km northeast of Peshawar.

His son, Sikandar Hayat Sherpao, who was walking behind his father, said the interior minister, surrounded by party workers, was exchanging greetings and signing applications when the suicide bomber struck at 6.55pm.

“I fell to the ground. There was black smoke and stench of gun-powder. I tried to get up but fell again,” Sikandar said.

“I was covered in flesh and blood. Realising what had happened I hurried to look for my father,” he recalled.

The interior minister said the impact of the explosion was massive and he also fell. “There was a massive impact,” he said, adding that it had affected his hearing.

The interior minister was rushed to the District Headquarters Hospital, Charsadda, and was later shifted to his Peshawar residence after treatment. Security has been beefed up at his residence.

The interior minister denied there was any intelligence about a possible suicide attack on Saturday’s public meeting, but deplored that security at the venue was minimal.

But NWFP Chief Minister Akram Durrani told Dawn that the administration had not been informed about the rally.This was the second attempt on Mr Sherpao’s life. The interior minister disclosed that a suicide bomber had attempted to kill him in a political rally organised to commemorate the death anniversary of his elder brother, Hayat Mohammad Khan Sherpao.

Incidentally, Hayat Mohammad Khan Sherpao, who was also an interior minister in the government of the late prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, had been killed in a bomb explosion while he was addressing a students’ convocation at the Peshawar University on February 8, 1975.

“It has happened in the family before,” Aftab Sherpao said, referring to the death of his elder brother.

A senior police investigator told Dawn in Peshawar that the head of the suicide bomber recovered from the site of the blast showed that he was in his 30s.

The bomber had a thick beard with strands of grey hair, unlike the past patterns where suicide bombers invariably turned out to be young boys in their 20s, AIG Investigation Fayaz Khan Toru said.

He said the bomber had a fair complexion with sharp features. “He could be an Afghan Tajik or someone from our tribal region,” he speculated.

He said the bomber had used high-intensity plastic explosives filled with ball bearings and nails and the suicide vest was electronically-charged with batteries attached to it. “It is evident that he detonated the bomb himself. It was self-triggered,” he said.

No group has so far claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing.Meanwhile, doctors said that 30 of the wounded, some of them in critical condition, had been brought to the Lady Reading Hospital in Peshawar where four persons succumbed to injuries. They were identified as Raeesullah, Jehanzeb Khan, Saadullah and Khiyal Mohammad. An emergency was declared in the Lady Reading Hospital

Police said that 17 out of the 28 dead had been identified while 10 bodies were yet to be identified.

Charsadda Naib Nazim Sajid Khan, who was at the scene, said he saw a ball of fire as the interior minister was proceeding towards his car and passed out.

President Pervez Musharraf, Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz and Afghan President Hamid Karzai telephoned Mr Sherpao to inquire after his health.

It may be recalled that President Musharraf has survived two attempts on his life while Prime Minister Aziz has one.

APP adds: NWFP Chief Minister Durrani expressed his profound shock and grief over the bomb blast and offered condolence to the bereaved families. He announced compensation of Rs100,000 each for the deceased and Rs50,000 for the wounded people. He directed the health department to provide free medical treatment to all.--APP

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