The death toll from a suicide bombing that targeted an election rally in the border district of Bajaur, Pakistan, has risen to 54 as funerals are held and the government promises to hunt down those behind the attack.
Nearly 200 people were wounded in Sunday’s bombing, which the ISIL (ISIS) armed group claimed responsibility for on Monday.
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“A suicide attacker from the Islamic State [ISIL] … detonated his explosive jacket in the middle of a crowd” in the town of Khar, the armed group’s news arm Amaq said in a statement.
About 400 members of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F) party, a key government coalition partner headed by hardline politician Fazlur Rehman, were waiting for speeches to begin when a bomber detonated a vest packed with explosives near the stage.
Rehman did not attend the rally, held under a large tent close to a market. The Pakistani leader has escaped at least two known bombings in 2011 and 2014 during political rallies.
As condolences poured in from across the country, dozens of people who received minor injuries were discharged from hospital while the critically wounded were taken to the provincial capital, Peshawar, by army helicopters. The death toll continued to rise as critically wounded people died in hospital, Dr Gul Naseeb said.
On Monday, police recorded statements from some of the wounded at a hospital in Khar, Bajaur’s largest town. Feroz Jamal, the provincial information minister, said police were “investigating this attack in all aspects”.
The death toll rose to at least 54 on Monday as about 90 injured people were still being treated at hospitals in the northeastern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, rescue official Bilal Faizi said.
Provincial police chief Akhtar Hayat Khan confirmed the explosion was caused by a suicide bombing and said DNA testing was being conducted to identify the bomber.
Local police chief Nazir Khan said at least three suspects were arrested overnight and intelligence and law enforcement agencies were interrogating them.
“What we have concluded from the initial investigation is that the attack carries the hallmark of Daesh [ISIL],” Khan said.
Many of those injured in the blast were taken to Lady Reading Hospital in Peshawar.
“There was a lot of sloganeering and noise. That’s when the blast happened,” said Gul Khan, who was at the rally and visiting injured friends at the hospital.
“It was hard for me to figure out what was happening. It was so loud, and there was smoke everywhere, and my ears were ringing. I couldn’t hear anything,” he told Al Jazeera.
Sultan Zeb said from Lady Reading that his 18-year-old nephew, Saeed Anwar, had died in Sunday’s bombing.
“Anwar loved going to political rallies. We had gotten him married a few months ago. His wife is pregnant, and she’s only a few months along,” Zeb said, adding that he started raising Anwar after his parents died in another explosion when he was young.
A 46-year-old JUI-F worker named Mumtaz who was being treated for shrapnel in her foot and a burst eardrum, said chaos broke out when the bomb went off.
“All of a sudden as I was about to sit again, a massive sound went off, and it was a huge blast that blinded me,” she said. “I didn’t understand for a moment what had happened. There was a flood of people running, and it was every man for himself. Everyone was just trying to save themselves and get out of that space.”
Death toll could have been higher
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.
Al Jazeera’s Kamal Hyder, reporting from the bombing site in Bajaur, said that had the explosion happened in a more confined space, the “casualties, although high, would have been much higher”.
Hyder added that the bomber “was able to get into this area with ease because most of the people are in local dress” and the perpetrator could conceal explosives under the traditional shalwar kameez.
The regional ISIL affiliate is based in neighbouring Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province and is a rival of the Afghan Taliban. Bajaur was a stronghold of the Pakistani Taliban, a close ally of Afghanistan’s Taliban government, before the Pakistani army conducted numerous offensives that ended in 2016 and claimed to have driven it out of the area.
Rehman’s supporters had gathered in Bajaur as part of their party’s preparations for the next parliamentary elections, expected sometime in October or November after the current parliament’s five-year term ends.
Bajaur had been a hotbed of attacks and was once controlled by the Taliban, according to Nizam Salarzai, executive director of The Khorasan Diary, a local media outlet. Since then, he said, the security situation has gotten significantly better.
But, he explained, the “recent surge in militancy is quite alarming and especially attacks like these where the Taliban are also condemning it and which are not coming from the Taliban but from other actors as well. It means that the Pakistani state might have to fight on multiple fronts to control this.”
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.
Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif is expected to dissolve the parliament in August to pave the way for elections. 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.